Writer’s Theme Park

Some of you may already know about this historic practice that I happened on during the week: In the middle ages books, which were hand copied and thus very expensive, were often chained to their shelves, like chain-gang prisoners or kidnap victims. Here’s a link to an image of what was called a “chained library:”  http://atlasobscura.com/place/hereford-cathedral-chained-library.

Now for the main post. On September 11, 2011, Pororo wrote, ….Do you have any suggestions for themes I could have in a story? For example I read a story and it was basically about having a dream. The theme of that story was that once you have a dream, chase after it as hard as you can and that there’s no such thing as a foolish/fake dream.
    That kind of theme. I would like my story to be inspirational to someone like that story was inspirational to me. I would also like to base my story around a pretty broad theme that hopefully people can relate to. <3

Early in the life of the blog, on June 10, 2009, I wrote a post on this subject, so you may want to peek at it. In that post I suggested that themes are unavoidable, whether we’re thinking about them or not. When I write a book, I don’t start with a theme. I start with an idea. And yet, themes creep in.

Let’s take A Tale of Two Castles as an example. The theme, which you’ll find on the book jacket, is that “goodness and evil come in all shapes and sizes.” But I wasn’t thinking about that when I began writing notes for the book. I wanted to write a mystery, and I was looking for one where I often look, in fairy tales. “Puss ‘N Boots” struck me in a new light when I examined it under my potential mystery lens. The vanquishing of the ogre is witnessed by no one but Puss. What if it didn’t go down the way he reported it? And I was off. I never thought about the theme until I was asked to weigh in on proposed jacket copy. The editors at HarperCollins got it right away, but I didn’t.

In Ella Enchanted, I was trying to explain Cinderella’s weird compliance with her awful stepfamily,  which is how the curse of obedience came about. For Fairest, I reread “Snow White” and realized that black hair, snow white skin, and blood-red lips weren’t an attractive combination. For The Two Princesses of Bamarre, I was attempting to tell the story of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” and getting nowhere until the story took itself in a new direction. Darned if I know what the theme of Beloved Elodie is.

As a reader, theme isn’t important to me. Story is. If the theme is very evident, I’m likely to be annoyed. I don’t read to be lectured to. I may even close the book forever. But if I loved a book I may ruminate about the theme afterward. An example of this is a book I read a few years ago, You’re Not You by Michelle Wildgen (high school and above, I think). The theme as I see it is in the title, but I didn’t realize until this moment. For me, it’s that personality growth can’t happen until we get outside ourselves. We have to become “Not You.”

I say “for me” because people take different messages from books. I’ve heard from several readers that Ella Enchanted made them more obedient. That’s an advantage of not declaring a theme on every page – the reader can shape the message to suit her needs. Pororo, it’s possible that the author of the dream story had something entirely different in mind from the message you took away.

Maybe it’s possible to write a themeless book, but offhand I can’t think of one I’ve ever read. People instill meaning in everything, probably writers do most of all. So here’s a negative prompt: Try to write a story without a theme, I mean a story that hangs together, has a coherent beginning, middle, and end but no theme. If you can’t find a theme after you’re done, show it to a friend and ask him if he can find one (without saying your story isn’t supposed to have one). You may succeed.

Going the other way, maybe you can start with a theme and build a story around it. Here’s another prompt: Write a story around this theme: Home is where you’re loved. Write it without pushing the theme in the reader’s face. If you lose track of the theme as you get involved in the characters and the action, so much the better. If you feel like it, post a summary of your story or a few sentences on the blog. I’ll bet everybody interprets the theme differently and we’ll get as many stories from the theme as people who try it.

As for the broadness of a theme and its relatable-ness, I have mixed emotions about this. Many years ago, when I was just starting out as a writer, not yet published, not yet daring to try a novel, I sent my picture book manuscripts to a particular editor who kept returning them with the criticism that they were “too slight.”

One story was about a girl, probably five or six years old, whose nose itched. The people in her life offered her superstitious predictions based on her itchy nose. One that I remember is that she would take a trip. In the course of the book each prediction came true in a small way. Another story was about a girl who believed her earlobes were going to shrink, and so she kept holding them to prevent the shrinkage. Hilarity ensued. At least I thought so.

I had no idea what the editor meant about “too slight,” but now I think she meant the themes weren’t universal; the stories were too small. I think there’s a place for small stories and themes that touch a limited audience. Blood Secret by Kathryn Lasky, a young adult novel, is about the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a fine book and I couldn’t put it down, partly because my ancestors were Jews in Spain during the early days of the Inquisition. The Carasso (my father’s birth name) family left Spain for Turkey when Queen Isabella expelled the Jews in 1492 – and stubbornly continued to speak Spanish for over 400 years! Turns out that the Inquisition wasn’t directed at the Jews but at former Jews who’d converted to Christianity but who were accused of practicing their old faith in secret. I’m not sure if this book has wide appeal, but it continues to be important to me. I’m grateful to the author for writing it and to the publisher for taking a chance on it.

That got pretty serious! Time for more theme-based prompts, but don’t forget about the prompts above.

∙    Write a story based on the dream theme Pororo suggested but without the dream per se. The theme is, No defeat is final.

∙    Here’s a more subtle theme: Success and failure are in the eye of the beholder. Base your story on that.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. The story I wrote for NaNoWriMo isn't really a novel,since it is only 9 pages long. but I did the young writers version when it allows you to set your own goal. Anyway when I wrote my story I didn't realize it had a theme, about a week ago I realized it did and now I'm all excited about it. I was just about to publish this when I saw what it said above the words you have to type in, "Please prove you are not a robot"

  2. I hadn't considered theme as you presented it here before. So basically, theme is a symptom of a well-told story. And that makes perfect sense. I find it difficult to write a story without giving some thought to the thematic elements, but I'm more of a planner than a pants-er. I can see how a more organic approach would lead naturally to the discovery of a theme after the fact… and actually be an affirmation that the story is well-crafted.

    I have discussed story ideas with colleagues that were lacking a theme but they rarely stood up as compelling or engaging. It was only when a theme was discovered or applied that the ideas acquired a sense of weight and context (and therefore seemed worth writing).

    As you observed, people WILL instill meaning into anything (even if it's not there) and if a writer can support that human impulse in the writing of their story, then the reader's experience will be that much more enjoyable.

    Thanks for sharing this, Gail… it inspired some new perceptions of the writing process for me.

  3. I have a lot of themes that reoccur in stories, but some of the ones that have just HAPPENED are: truth, love, loyalty, adventure. Themes are like bald spots; they just happen, but they happen gradually and you don't notice them until the work is complete.

  4. But themes can go the other way, too– some people might mis-interpret them, if that's possible. @Gail, does anyone every complain to you about how Ella Enchanted portrayed obedience as bad? But sometimes that's the beauty of it: you think that the theme is loyalty, but really, it's about "anyone can find love, but not anyone can grasp it" or something like that.
    I don't think any of my novels have themes… but I'll definitely have to look into that!! 🙂
    Thanks for another great post, Gail!
    (I enjoyed the chained books. Thanks for sharing.)

  5. I don't set out to put themes in my work, but sometimes they creep in. One of my friends wrote an Amazon review* commenting about how my book made a powerful statement against social injustice, or something like that, and my reaction was "Really? Cool! I didn't know that!"

    *I don't remember the exact wording. I was going to quote it, but it was long ago, and it looks like Amazon's erased all the reviews.

    Does anybody else have little stuff that turns up in their work over and over? Not major things like themes, just quirks. I have multiple stories where characters end up eating mice. I have no idea why. It's weird.

    • Meant to say I enjoyed the mention of chained books too – love history in the way it wasn't taught in school. 🙂 (History class I think was always more a history of wars and politics rather than a full history.) I remember in some recent reading about the ebook rise that when the printing press came out it was thought that it would decrease the quality of books because it would make them too easy to publish!

  6. I am so relieved! My dad wanted to read my book so badly, so I finally told him that he could last summer. He never had any comments. I thought for sure he hated it…but it turns out that he had just never read it. He read it recently and loved it, and even pointed out parts that he thought were, "really cool"! You have no idea what a confidence boost and relief this is! Sorry, don't mean to gloat, I just had to share.

    Interesting post! Is there a difference between theme and moral? I finally know what the moral of my story is, but I have no clue about the theme, unless that's the same thing.

    • That's great! I know you will hear that "it doesn't matter if your family likes it" but really that only applies to if you put that in a query letter. 🙂 And also isn't it great he could point out some parts he really liked? That means much more than just saying he liked the book but not mentioning anything specific!

  7. Inkling–Wonderful!

    writeforfun–Congratulations, and thanks for letting us know.

    I think a theme is broader than a moral. The moral of "Little Red Riding Hood" is "Obey your mother," I think, but for me the theme is "Be careful where you place your trust." Anybody else have thoughts on this?

  8. Gail, what do you think of the movie Ella Enchanted by Disney? I think they butchered it to be honest. I didn't like the movie at all. They seemed to have just taken the name and totally screwed up the plot. I'm not trying to offend anyone who liked the movie, I'm just sharing my personal opinion. 😀

  9. Thanks!

    Oh, I just remembered a question that I've been meaning to ask: where do you find the names for the characters in your books? Especially the made up ones (at least I think they're made up!) like Aza, Vidia, Lucinda, ect.

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