Thinking Theme, The Final Chapter

After a few diversions, I’m back to the topic of theme. This is the subject of my next Red Sneaker book, so if there are any aspects I haven’t covered, or anything you’d like me to address, please let me know. And I’m still interesting in hearing title possibilities…

Here’s what I’ve covered so far, in brief. Theme isn’t about thumping people over the head with your political, religious, or spiritual beliefs. At best, it’s putting a topic up for discussion–basically saying, here’s something important we ought to think about.

Some writers handle theme more subtly than others. People like Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn have found success in thrillers with a hardline conservative bent, typically portraying the Middle East as a dire threat to truth, justice, and the American Way. There’s no doubt but that much of John Grisham’s early success was due to his anti-lawyer, anti-lawyering stance. Most of his early characters become disillusioned with the law and quit, in some cases before they’ve actually begun. This clearly captured the zeitgeist of lawyer-bashing popular at the time. (To be fair, Grisham, a fine writer, has since moved on to more profound themes.)

Many contemporary novels have found great success by encapsulating, or perhaps galvanizing, the sentiment of their times. Catch-22 rode to success with an antiwar theme that held great appeal during the Vietnam era (even though the story concerned a different war). The same could be said of M*A*S*H. The Bonfire of the Vanities was perceived as a summation of the “Me Generation” of the 80s. The film Tootsie addressed gender roles and stereotypes long before that became commonplace.

Some themes recur frequently because they are universal, or close to it. Prejudice. The dehumanization of industrial society. Revenge. Corruption. Obsession. Relationships. And then there are all those dichotomies your English teacher used to talk about. Man vs. nature. Hope vs. despair. Good vs. evil. These will always be of interest and import to readers. The only question is whether you can bring anything fresh to the table.

I mean no disrespect to any of the previously mentioned authors when I suggest that the books that continue to be read through successive generations, that stand the test of time, usually speak on a quieter but more profound level. I always advise writers to ask themselves: What matters most to you? Get past the obvious answers. I know you love your spouse, kids, family, pets. Beyond that. What matters most? What has made the biggest difference in your life? If you could cause your readers to see one thing, what would it be?

Theme should add depth to your story, should transform it from an amusing way to pass time into a meaningful reading experience. The repetition of thematic elements will lend the tale resonance. The story will still be strong, and that’s good, because it you practice any degree of subtlety, some readers will miss it. But the others will appreciate you much more because you lent an added dimension to your tale. And it should be useful to you during the writing process, too, because knowing your theme will help you make decisions about what to write, what characters to use, and what should happen to them. In the editing stage, it guides what to keep and what to cut. It sharpens the entire story.

In the Red Sneaker book, I’ll talk more about how to integrate that theme into your work. In the meantime, my Kindle Scout campaign has two more weeks to go, so please tell your friends to meander over and “nominate” my book. Costs nothing and might get you a free book. And please also spread the word about the Patreon campaign I’m hoping will keep the Red Sneaker Center, all the blogs and newsletters and publishing and seminars, running for the foreseeable future.

Kindle Scout: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

 

 

Theme, Part 2

Thanks to everyone who suggested a title for my forthcoming Red Sneaker book. “Thinking Theme” is my current favorite (possibly “Thinking About Theme?”) but I’m still open to any suggestions you might have.

Last time I talked about what theme isn’t–basically, it isn’t clubbing people over the head with a moral or a political viewpoint (though Aesop and Ayn Rand might feel differently). Let’s get more positive this time. Let’s talk about what theme is.

I will admit that I am still influenced by a seminal book I read early in my writing career, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction. Here, the brilliant critic, theoretician, and author of novels like Grendel talked about theme, and more specifically, how to make fiction moral. His idea was that all stories convey society’s underlying values (some better than others). This is represented in authors’ choices, how they lay out the plot, what creates a story that seems to “make sense.” If you accept that notion, then one reason to read old books is to gain insight into the values of the people of the time when it was written. I have often said that one of the great pleasures of reading classic literature is that you realize that people may have believed different stuff back then–but people themselves haven’t changed at all.

Stories are the glue that hold together our fragile experience. They validate our values. This is revealed not only when you choose what to read, but when you choose what to write. That’s just common sense. Techno-thrillers appeal to those who favor strong shows of military force, not pacifists. SF appeals to people who, at the very least, believe in science. Romances appeal to those who believe in love. Religious fiction…well, this is getting obvious, isn’t it? You get the point.

To be fair, some people read to have their values challenged…but not many. We tend to be a closed-minded bunch, even those of us who read voraciously. But if you can produce a book that seriously challenges the way people think, you may be headed to greatness. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be a good example. On Civil Disobedience is another. Many spiritual or inspirational books have traded on vagueness, that is, they aren’t really saying anything new, but give readers the feeling that they’ve read something terribly profound–when in reality they’re just reinforcing what the reader already believes. In the opinion of some, this might include Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or The Celestine Prophecy, or even Tuesdays with Morrie–all of them huge bestsellers.

Gardner said, “By theme here we mean not a message—a word no good writer likes applied to his work—but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be Worldwide Inflation.”  So it’s presenting a subject worthy of contemplation, rather than telling people what to think. Posing a question, but not forcing an answer. Similarly, Chekov said a writer does not solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly.

One of the most challenging examples of this for me was my novel Capitol Conspiracy, which tackled the then-new Patriot Act. The fundamental question was, Should we uphold the civil rights upon which this nation was founded, or relinquish them in favor of enhanced security? I tried not to take sides. I knew everyone would expect bleeding-heart Ben Kincaid to take the liberal viewpoint, so I created a dramatic event that turned the poor boy in just the opposite direction. If Ben could rethink his predispositions, should we? Ultimately I wasn’t trying to tell people what to think. I was saying, This is an important topic we should all think about, and give reasoned, not panicked or reactionary, consideration.

More next week. Btw, registrations for my California and Massachusetts retreats will close at the end of the month. Don’t miss this opportunity to workshop your words and ideas. Click here: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

 

Thinking About Theme, Part 1

Let me lead with a secret: The next book in the Red Sneaker book series will be on Theme (then Description and Setting, Conflict, and unless you think of something else, I’m done). Perhaps you’re questioning whether this sounds like the most exciting writing topic. I think it is–in fact, sometimes I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process. Or perhaps you’re imagining you already know everything there is to know about Theme. Maybe you do–but I can tell you that I didn’t, which became abundantly clear as I started gathering my thoughts for this book, and I’ve written over thirty novels now.

Depending upon who your English teacher was, you may have the idea that theme is some deep, profound, secret meaning cryptically buried somewhere in a fictional or poetic text. I don’t think so, and I think Theme is rarely as simple or as didactic as what we are sometimes taught. I mean, maybe in Aesop’s fables, or in a parable (Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm), but most novelists want to be somewhat subtler. Rightly so. Morals hammering readers over the head rarely have much impact. To me the best themes do not pound. Theme is best when it’s more like the brush of a feather, something that tickles readers’ brains just enough to get them thinking–but not enough to take them out of the story.

One of the best analogies I’ve read is this: theme is the container for your story.  Sort of like a cup, or a goblet.  It’s what holds all the other elements together and makes them even better than they might otherwise be.  And here’s the truth: the goblet may be completely unnoticed by some readers, but the drink is still better because the goblet is there.

Don’t think of Theme as some ponderous shroud only decoded by academics and critics, diehard dissertation writers who strap the story to a chair and beat the theme out, leaving it lifeless afterward. It’s not a game of Hide and Seek. It’s more like Sardines (if you don’t know the diff, Google it). You have the joy of discovery without the pain struggling for it. Because reading is not supposed to be a hair-shirt experience. The story itself should be a delight, and the theme is the lagniappe, the added bonus that gives it additional pleasure and makes the book linger in the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned. Like Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.”

 

Have you ever finished a book and thought, That was nice, but so what? And a week later, you can’t even recall what it was about? That’s not the ticket to the bestseller list, much less the classics list. The best way to give your book added resonance is to underlie the conflict with a well-conceived theme. This is why War and Peace is more than just another war story, why A Tale of Two Cities is more than just another thriller.

Okay, so now that I’ve explained what Theme isn’t, you may be wondering what it is. Next week.

By the way, if I’m going to write a book on theme, I need a snazzy alliterative two-word title. And frankly, I got nothing. Can you suggest a title? I’ll give you credit and everything. Everything except royalties. Email your ideas to me: willbern@gmail.com. Any other suggestions for the book will be equally welcome.

The summer is fact approaching and I’ll be closing registrations for at least two of my writing retreats at the end of the month. Register before it’s too late: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php