Literary Corner Cafe

Friday, January 7, 2011

Writing Tips - Finding Your Theme


If you want to write a novel – or any work of fiction – I have to assume you want to tell a story. People have been telling stories since the dawn of mankind. Storytelling is a part of our history of being human. But what compels us to want to tell – and read – stories? Are we just looking for entertainment? A way to wile away a few hours on a cold/rainy/summer’s day? Sometimes, but I think most of the time, most readers are looking for a lot more. Storytelling does – and always has – gone far, far deeper than that. At least the best storytelling does.

So, what is it that compels a writer to sit down and invent worlds, people, and events and then pull them all together in such a way as to give them a ring of truth and seem real? And what makes readers flock to buy certain books? What makes certain books endure and others not?

Storytellers, I think, are those people who constantly ask, “Why?” I know I was one of those persons. My parents even got a little perturbed with my constant questioning of why things had to be the way they were. At times they answered me with a simple, “Because that’s just the way they are.” I promptly asked yet another “Why?” I felt I really needed to know. Eventually, to my parents’ immense relief, I turned to books in search of the answers.

People who feel compelled to write fiction are, at their deepest level, searching for their own answers about how the world works and why it works the way it does. They’re digging deep into their own core beliefs, and, through the characters and worlds they invent, seeing how these beliefs stand up to scrutiny. Even those who write fantasy and science fiction are doing this. They’re just exploring the world and its questions from a slightly different vantage point, but even fantasy worlds have rules and even fantasy characters are trying to find order among chaos.

The best fiction writers are trying to know the unknowable; they’re trying to understand the things that seem impossible to understand; they’re trying to answer the unanswerable. And this can be a scary thing because sometimes life coughs up answers that we don’t like, that make us more uncomfortable than if we’d never bothered to ask the question in the first place. The best fiction writers have a bit of the philosopher in them, and they are courageous. The best fiction writers “go where no man has gone before.”

The questions a fiction writer asks in his or her books are his themes. A theme – and you should know this, of course – is the exploration of a fundamental and universal idea. Some people – even some writers – confuse theme and motif. A motif is a recurring structure, contrast, or other literary device that helps to develop the novel’s major themes, but it is not the theme, itself.

In Anna Karenina by Count Leo Tolstoy, considered by many to be the greatest book ever written, some of the themes explored are evident in the very first sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Right away, we know Tolstoy is going to explore the themes of love and marriage and parenthood and the ties that bind a family together or the trials that tear it apart. And, Tolstoy does explore these very themes by focusing on three families – the Oblanskys, the Karenins, and the Levins. Tolstoy also explores moral and religious themes, primarily through the character of Constantin Levin, though almost all of the characters have something to contribute. Class and society are also explored, as is city living versus country living (Tolstoy deplored city living and thought it contributed to moral decline, while he extolled the virtues of country living; this is evident to anyone who reads this great book). The meaning of death and its acceptance as a part of life is yet another theme Tolstoy explores in Anna Karenina, though not nearly as much as he explores family life and not as much as he explores it in other works, such as the beautiful novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

The Age of Innocence, the book that many consider Edith Wharton’s masterpiece, seems, at first glance to be all about a love triangle among Newland Archer, May Welland Archer, and the Countess Ellen Olenska, but if one looks deeper, one will see that this book revolves around the individual versus society and appearance versus reality. It’s also about change in society and how the “old” society of New York compares with and impacts the “new” society and the changing social mores.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë’s timeless novel of a love that couldn’t die, also concerns itself with society and one’s place in it. The Earnshaws and the Lintons were not members of the “upper crust,” by any means, but they were respectable and accepted members of Yorkshire society. Catherine Earnshaw marries Edgar Linton, not because she loves him, but so she can be “the greatest woman of the neighborhood,” something that doesn’t work out too well for her. Brontë also explores society and class through the character of Heathcliff, a wild, abandoned child, who is adopted by Catherine’s father. As we witness his transformation into a “gentleman,” at least “in dress and manners,” we come to realize that there is nothing Heathcliff could have done to overcome his rocky start in life.

Another very powerful theme in Wuthering Heights – perhaps the most powerful theme in the book – concerns the destructiveness of love that fails to change and grow. There’s no doubt that Catherine and Heathcliff love each other passionately, but their love remains static, and in the end, it destroys them both. Contrasted with Catherine and Heathcliff is the love between the younger Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw. Cathy and Hareton both grow and change, and their love grows and changes, and it contains as much friendship as it does passion. While Catherine and Heathcliff had passion to spare, friendship was something that seemed to be lacking in their relationship. Brontë seemed to be telling us, among other things, that life and love, if they are to be successful, are a process of change, and if one refuses to accept that change, he or she is doomed to failure.

No author can write about every theme under the sun. There are far too many, and we just don’t live long enough to cover life in its totality. Most authors develop favorite themes that run through most of their fiction. Edith Wharton often wrote about the effects of the decline of “old” society and the rise of the “new” and how each impacted the other. One of Henry James’ favorite themes was the relative naïveté of Americans in Europe. We can see this clearly in Daisy Miller and The Portrait of a Lady. Charles Dickens, as just about everyone knows, wrote about the injustices done to the poor. Thomas Hardy loved to write about the workings of fate on his characters, and, by extension, the workings of fate on all people. This is a theme that shows up in every book Hardy ever wrote. Chang-rae Lee and Jhumpa Lahiri, to name just two, write about the immigrant experience and people who feel displaced and the effects of that displacement on them.

The books that endure are the books that explore universal themes, experiences that happen to just about everyone, questions that arise in the lives of all of us at one time or another, questions that seem to have no answers.

You can’t arbitrarily impose theme on your work, however, people who think and question the way the world works will write stories that inherently expound upon a theme, and as you write, you should become aware of what these emerging themes are. Are you writing about the nature of love? The dangers of obsession? What it’s like to grow old and die? What it would be like to never grow old and die? Are you exploring the nature of evil and why some people deliberately choose evil over good? Do you want to know why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to some who commit evil acts? Do you want to explore why we choose to love the people we choose and why we sometimes fall out of love with them? Or, do you want to explore what it means to be a part of a family? What constitutes a family? Is it only ties of blood, or is there more?

The themes you choose will define you as a writer and define your work. They will also give power and depth to all who read it. Each reader, of course, will interpret it in a slightly different light, but you can be sure that if your reader is an intelligent, thinking person, he or she will not only enjoy your story, but will be impacted by your theme. In fact, it’s your theme that will resonate with the reader long after the details of the story are forgotten.

Of course it’s possible to write without exploring any deep and lasting themes. It’s possible to become a popular author just exploring “safe” themes, questions to which everyone already has the answer. If you think about some of the current bestsellers, many of them do not explore “deep” subjects. You might make money – a lot of money – writing about “safe” themes, but you’d better be both lucky and good, and you’d better know your work won’t win any awards or be remembered in the long term. You won’t “touch” your readers like those authors who embrace a deeper, more profound theme, and you won’t grow as a writer.

The books that endure were written by writers with the courage to look life in the face and say, “I don’t understand this. This doesn’t make sense to me.” They have explored, through their short stories or novels, the things that frighten them, confuse them, sadden them, and sometimes make them smile, and in doing so, they’ve been true to themselves.

If you could ask “Life” or “God” anything you wanted, what would it be? The answers to these questions are the themes that you’ll no doubt want to explore in your writing. Their universality (along with the quality of your writing, of course), will determine how loved and admired your book is by people all over the world. Almost everyone is a part of a family. Most people get married or want to get married or are at least interested in how marriage works. Most of us grow old, and we all die. Most people contemplate God or the Prime Mover. Even those who profess to be atheists ask themselves where we came from, and what will happen to our soul once our body dies. All of the above were explored by Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. Universal themes, subjects that touch us all. Once you realize this, it becomes easy to see why that book is such a beloved classic.

As a writer, you need to find your own themes and explore them in your work. Not only will your readers be more satisfied with your books, you will be, too. And, even though the best book in the world can’t promise you physical immortality, if you do a good job of exploring your chosen themes, you’ll leave behind something of your courage and your intelligence, your sensitivity and your integrity.

You are definitely not immortal – not in this world, at least – but your name, your indomitable spirit, and your work can be.

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