Santa on the Dark Side

On December 4, 2019, Raina wrote her third question in response to my plea for questions (Thank you, Raina!): What do you do when your story turns “deeper” than you originally intended, and a whole bunch of complicated (not bad or problematic, just…complicated) themes and messages crop up, and the story you find yourself writing is no longer the story you set out to tell? I’m really bad at explaining this one, it’s more like a gut feeling. To use some examples from my work, what was supposed to be a fun, lighthearted adventure romp about Santa turned into a story about revenge, power, grey morality, and social media mob mentality. In other words, thematically it basically went from Percy Jackson to Game of Thrones.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t like dark, deep, serious, or morally complex books, or that I think that MG readers shouldn’t read these books. I love Game of Thrones and similar works *because* of the complicated characters and grey morality, and I think there should absolutely be books like that for MG readers. It’s not really a matter of a serious tone or “dark” content, either. (I asked a similar question a while back but I don’t think I phrased it well.) It’s more like, as I write, the story is starting to ask difficult questions that I don’t know how to answer and am not sure I want to ask.

And, of course, part two of the question is how do you know if this is actually an issue, and not just in your head? I have a tendency to overthink/over-read into things (like the old joke where the English teacher goes on a long analysis about what blue curtains symbolize, while the writer just liked the color blue) and maybe I’m seeing things between the lines that normal readers would never notice.

And as a note, I know that some stories are *meant* to be serious, complicated works that force the reader to think deeply about the world and its issues. I like to read those and I sometimes write those, but my problem is when a book that *isn’t* supposed to be like that starts turning into that and I can’t control it. Sometimes I just want a fun, lighthearted adventure romp to stay a fun, lighthearted adventure romp.

Melissa Mead wrote back, I can sympathize. Real-life politics are trying to creep into the WIP, and I don’t want ’em there. Themes, sure. Moral issues, sure. But not something I just saw on the news, only with serpent-demons. (Fortunately for the WIP, life’s simpler for serpent-demons. If somebody invades their territory, the demons just eat ’em.)

Raina responded, Yes! That is my problem exactly. I can deal with morally complex big-picture themes relatively easier than I can with smaller, specific ideas that may or may not be reminiscent of real-world issues (though neither are easy to deal with). Themes like power, morality, corruption, etc., have been around for millennia, both in fiction and in history, because humans are flawed, and I feel like I have comparatively more leeway to explore them from all angles because of that. They’re so common, and occur in so many different forms, that you can’t really pinpoint any specific event or issue that those themes correspond with.

But what I’m really afraid of is writing something and have a reader think “this sounds like an analogy for a specific thing that’s going on in the real world, and this is what I think the author is trying to say about that real-world thing” when I wasn’t trying to say anything at all. I admire authors who use their medium to address real-world problems, and I think it can be done well, but sometimes I just want a story to be a story and I’m afraid people will read between the lines and find messages that I never meant to leave.

I feel your pain! Since my Princess Tales book, Sonora and the Long Sleep, came out I’ve heard from readers a few times about–breast-feeding! If you’ve read the book and remember, Sonora is ten times smarter than any other human being. She can talk almost instantly (though with a lisp, because she doesn’t have teeth yet), and she refuses to be breast-fed, calling it cannibalism.

Readers have deduced that I, Sonora’s creator, oppose breast-feeding. Not so! But I imagined Sonora as, intellectually, a twelve-year-old in a baby’s body. At twelve, there is no way I would have breast-fed!

If I’d anticipated this response, would I have changed what I wrote or cut it entirely? I can’t say. This was many years ago. But I continue to like it, because it’s true to my character, and it’s funny.

We can’t anticipate what readers will think when they read our stories. It’s wonderful when they let us know, because they felt strongly enough about our words to reach out to us. (We can answer, or not.)

Going back to the first part of Raina’s question, about serious and problematic themes cropping up unexpectedly, I have a couple of thoughts.

This is just a possibility: These grave topics may be pushing you, wanting to be written about. If we tamp them down, our story may punish us in the ways that recalcitrant stories know all too well how to do.

Raina, I remember that you outline. You might spend a few hours figuring out where the story would go if you let it be serious. If you like what happens, you can go that way.

If you don’t, then you can list ways to lighten things up.

If you’re a pantser like me, you may have to write a lot of pages to find out.

Or you can write both stories. A writer I loved (I haven’t read him in years), the late Donald Westlake (high school and up), wrote comic crime novels under his own name and darker crime novels under the name Richard Stark. In the comic ones, the MC is always the bumbling crook, Dortmunder, and in the serious ones, the criminal MC (but not the villain) is Parker. In one of the funny books, Dortmunder and his gang of idiots have a book by Richard Stark (which is an actual Richard Stark book that Westlake wrote). They decide to commit Stark’s crime exactly, because it turns out well for him. What could go wrong? It’s such a funny premise! Westlake got two books out of one. You can, too.

If we decide we don’t want to be serious, how can we dial it back?

∙ Our characters. This is probably the most important one. Let’s make Santa our MC. We can write two versions of his stream of consciousness:

The dark one: The letters came from this house. Not addressed to the elves or the old elf, who would be me, but to the King of Cold, the bringer of winter, the troll at the top of the world. Been on my mind all year. Don’t they realize I need to be happy? Don’t they know my happiness affects everyone else’s?

The light-hearted one: The letters came from this house. Sent me straight to the mirror to see the troll at the top of the world. I didn’t get what she meant until I shone a flashlight under my chin and forced a snarl. Ho, ho, ho! That was funny. I want to thank this girl. She got me through a dull summer.

If we’re getting too serious, we can examine what our characters are thinking, saying, doing, and make different choices for them. Also, the effects of events on our MC will influence the mood. An MC who keeps trying, who isn’t defeated when events go against her, will keep our story bobbing up no matter what.

Secondary characters can help, too. If Santa shows the troubling letters to his chief helper, that character will also set the tone. If she’s horrified or outraged, matters may escalate. If she, for instance, says, “You want to hear from your public, boss. I wish somebody would once, just once, write to me.” she’ll calm the waters.

∙ The stakes. The stakes don’t have to be high for a story to be engrossing. What’s needed most is likable characters who care deeply about an issue, which could be either winning the snowman-making competition or surviving the global snow-pocalypse caused by nuclear winter. If our story is more serious than we want it to be, we can lower the stakes.

∙ Setting. Might be hard to make The Shining quite so scary if it took place in a Holiday Inn or a private house, say a raised ranch.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m never sure how to take the nursery rhyme, “Jack and Jill,” which seems tragic. Turn the rhyme into two stories, one sad and one happy.

∙ Take “Jack and Jill” again. Your MC, Abby, is babysitting for little Bobby, who heard the rhyme at school and was terrified. At home, he brings it up and weeps uncontrollably. Write a very serious story in which Abby, who means well, makes everything worse, with lasting consequences for her, Bobby, his family, and the town of Hillsford.

∙ Santa receives the first name-calling letter in July and begins a correspondence with the writer. Write a few letters back and forth and then have the two meet. Let the story decide for you whether it’s lighthearted or dark.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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:”

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!