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!