Friday, 12 June 2009

This story reeks

Back to the FutureHow often do you look for themes when you're reading stories? Or watching movies? Not very often, I'll bet, unless advanced studies in literature permanently warped your ability to enjoy a story. I was already an avid reader before I got a degree in languages and literature (which I enjoyed immensely, I might add) so I never lost the ability to just roll around in a story for the sheer joy of it.

But one thing they were right about in those classes, every story around is just reeking with themes.

"What is a theme?" you might ask. (One thing I love about readers of this blog is that they always ask the right questions at the right time.)

The theme is the other answer to "what is the story about?"

Last night we sat and watched Back to the Future yet again and I suddenly was struck by it.

"This isn't a movie about time travel," I said to my long-suffering husband, "this is a movie about learning to have self-confidence." All I had to do was say it. It was like waving a magic wand. Self-confidence issues suddenly sprang up all over the movie like dandelions in spring. Both Marty and George had fears of being rejected, fears they expressed in identical language, in case you were tempted to miss it. Doc Brown gains the confidence necessary to push his research to a successful conclusion by the revelations of a visitor from the future. When George McFly reaches deep within himself to find a courage he didn't know he had, his whole future changes. The bad-guy vice-principal is a bad guy because he specializes in destroying self-confidence.

See what I mean about stories reeking with theme? Did the writers of the script sit down and say "Let's do a movie about finding self-confidence"? I sincerely doubt it. But it was obviously something that mattered to them a great deal, because it was everywhere in the story.

The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is, on the face of it, a story about super-heroes. But it's also a movie about finding your place in the world. The list of characters struggling with this issue comprises most of the main characters: everyone in the Incredible family (excepting the baby), the villain, the father's best friend... (Sorry, I forget the names. I'm bad for that.) If you've watched the special features, you know that even in the scenes that never made the movie this is an issue, as the mother becomes infuriated by the snooty neighbours who despise her decision to stay home with her family. When the main characters resolve their issues and assume their proper roles, the story is over.

Or take Harry Potter. A recurring theme in all seven books is the value of marginalized people, from Harry's band of misfit followers to Severus Snape to Harry himself. The despised ones become the means of salvation. You can hardly turn a page without finding echoes of this theme. (Ironically, this is a theme you'll find all over the Bible too.)

The plot is the mechanics of a story, its bones. The theme is its beating heart. As a writer, you don't have to go looking for themes to "insert" into your story. It will be there, beating under the surface, whether you notice it or not. You'd be hard-pressed to keep it out.

Any other themes you've noticed in other well-known stories? Have you ever been put off by a theme?

Ever been surprised by the themes in your own work? Have you ever consciously tried to write a theme story?

Hm, I just noticed that ever single one of the stories I've cited fall under the banner of speculative fiction. I don't think this qualifies as a theme, but it's certainly a recurring motif. Make of that what you will.


Selestial said...

I didn't TRY to work in a theme in my YA series per se, I just knew it would be there. My books have a strong theme of self-acceptance and finding a place in the world. I don't necessarily try to push it in extra places, but it's definitely there. In the first book, the villain is essentially taking away people's freedom of choice, the right to "be", and for my heroine to win, she has to come to grips with and accept a part of herself that she has battled against for years. She has to learn how to just "be".

Janet said...

Did you consciously try to write that kind of story, or did the theme just more or less insert itself?

C.bronco said...

One interesting thing I didn't realize about my YA novel was that tow of the most powerful adults in the work were women over 50.

I noticed it while working on revision, and think it's pretty cool to see the big guns coming from that demographic.

My themes were everpresent while working though- people do bad things in the name of improvement, and censorship is bad.

Janet said...

Women over 50, eh? In YA? I approve.

Did you set out to incorporate the other themes? If you did, are you worried about becoming preachy?

Levi Montgomery said...

I think I tend to see themes rather more clearly than average, and I agree with all of the above, but what I liked most was your statement about "the ability to just roll around in a story for the sheer joy of it." That's what reading is for, right there.


Janet said...

Pleased to see you here, Levi. :o) Fortunately I learned to love reading very young, before school could stamp it out of me. Had a couple of really bad English teachers in high school. University was better, but still had to read way too much "serious" stuff.

Johanna said...

I absolutely didn't even think of a theme as I was writing...but as you said, it just crept in there! In fact, I was having a horrible time writing my query letter. Horrible that is until I finally sat down and discovered the theme...justice. As soon as I recognized it, my whole letter took on a different aspect as did the way my characters looked in my eyes.

Awesome post!

Janet said...

Doesn't it give you a weird feeling that some stranger reading your MS might have picked up on its theme faster than you did yourself? They're like noses; other people see them more easily.


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