Writing to Theme

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(Er. This apparently failed to post on Thursday. Trying again, then…)

I would like this to be a blog entry full of salient advice and wisdom on working themes into your writing. Sadly for me, I find the skill to do so on a conscious level something to be admired and awed from a distance, so this is really more throwing it open for discussion to see what other people have to say on the subject.

I *do* admire the mental process that says, “I have a particular thematic thrust I want to drive home with this story.” and I know there are writers who genuinely work that way. I’m not one of them; I can barely wrap my mind around writing on that meta a level.

The closest I’ve ever come, as a writer, to managing A Theme is in writing Belinda, the protagonist of the Inheritors’ Cycle (aka “The Queen’s Bastard books”). She is/was a character defined by her loyalty, and so at least _a_ theme of those books is the price of loyalty. I’m sure readers can find themes I didn’t have any particular intention of putting in, in those books and others. (Well, okay, tackling racism is A Theme in the Negotiator trilogy, that one’s probably pretty obvious. And I meant to do it. :)) But largely, I find the ability to Write Themes–especially in short stories!–a mystery.

So tell me, gentle readers. Do you even try to work Themes into your writing? If you do, how? Do you start with a Thematic Idea and go from there? Enquiring minds want to know!

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7 comments to Writing to Theme

  • I actually do try to work themes into my work on a couple of levels. One is similar to what you describe for the Inheritors’ Cycle — Like your books, my Winds of the Forelands and Blood of the Southlands books dealt with racism and ethnic identity. They also touched on sacrifice, loyalty and betrayal, vengeance. But I also think, at least for me, that theme works on a second level. Depending on my worldbuilding and my narrative, I might use a lot of water imagery or fire imagery in my metaphors and descriptions. I find it’s a useful way to reinforce background elements of the story. Maybe that’s not theme so much as motif, but I’m not clever or sophisticated enough to know the difference.

    I read and LOVED The Queen’s Bastard, and am now sailing through The Pretender’s Crown, and I would say that for me as a reader the dominant theme of the series is “Power and Control.” It works on so many levels: the politics, the familial interactions, the sexual relationships, the web of friendships. And then, second would be the “Loyalty and Betrayal” theme that you mention, though I think it goes far, far beyond just Belinda. In fact, whether you knew it at the time or not, Catie, you’ve written a pair of powerfully thematic books. They also happen to be totally kick-ass and amazingly fun to read.

  • I try to write in themes and this my main strategy for my short fiction works as I try to submit to anthologies that are open to all, but then I think that there might be some difference between theme and prompt. However I do hold these two to be quite close to concept. So far I have had no problems working whatever is requested from me and I actually find it an excellent way to explore the dimensions of one imagination. The theme and idea come from outside here and I am not sure how successful I am with this, since I am yet to submit to the anthologies I have bookmarked, but I am satisfied with my mind assimilating the challenge. However I do tend to write on spurs of ideas that simply pop in my head.

  • Once, when the earth and I were much younger, I tried to write to theme. Didn’t work. The story just dies on me. So, I just write and devil take whatever theme anyone ferrets out of it. Any theme is purely unintentional.

    I don’t mind theme, as long as it isn’t heavy-handed. Nothing will turn me off a story than preaching, whether I agree or not. There are authors that tell wonderful stories, but I won’t read them because of their blatant themes.

  • Sarah

    I can’t write to theme either, but a theme always emerges as I write. Somewhere around the middle of a short story I realize what the theme is and all of a sudden the whole story makes sense (to me at least) not just as an interesting series of events, but a meaningful series of events. Then I can edit with the theme in mind to make the plot tighter. But even then, what I see as the theme isn’t what a reader will always see. My short story Panda Bird was about mankind as a creator with the power to manipulate reality. My critique group thought it was a story about moving from affirmation of religious tenets to actually living based on them. I didn’t see it coming, but when I couldn’t deny it when they pointed it out. And when I started writing the story it was about origami. Theme remains mysterious to me.

  • For me, themes are subconscious. As I write a theme emerges from the story. I rarely sit down with a story theme in mind from the beginning. I think this would be a fairly common thing amongst writers. Very few I know would sit down and think to themselves, “I want to write a story about sexism and racism.” Then do it.

    The only exceptions I can think of would be themed Anthologies, magazines, or writing prompts.

  • Catie, I missed this post! I agree with David — the duo of books blew me away. And the theme that spoke to me was the one of betrayal in the relationship between father and daughter. Spectacular.

    And do I write with theme in mind? Uh… Not at all. I agree with Tom. For me, it happens as a result of the story. Is the theme in the back of my mind as I write, driving the creative process along? Maybe. Could be. But it is never there in the forefront of the creative process. Not for me. I admire writers who can write from that driving force.

  • I have this same issue, Catie. I can’t conciously insert a theme as an abstract concept. I need some concrete thing to mold. But I don’t want to be too blunt. So what I usually do is note themes as they emerge (and if I am lucky, they emerge during the idea fermentation process) and try to keep those themes in mind as I write, letting them seep into the story through osmosis. There are probably a lot I miss, and I never decide on them before hand. So they are still mostly unintentional and I don’t mind if the reader interprets the story in their own way.