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  1. #1
    Wirt's Fourth Leg Cirias's Avatar
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    Theme Comes First

    I don't know if this will be useful for anyone out there, but its something I was reminded of today. I've had many failed projects over the years. In fact, I've probably left a smouldering trail long enough to light up the passage from Europe to America by now. But, getting to my point, the reason I believe I've had such a high rate of abandoned stories is down to the fact I rarely ever start my planning with a solid theme. Laugh if you like. It's a basic element of novel planning, yet so many online tutorials and guides seem to miss out this crucial step entirely.

    For my latest WIP, I made sure I started with a rock solid theme. The theme is so important to start from because it drives the story and keeps everything pointing in the same direction. Time and time again I'd start with a random idea or plot (i.e. assassin seeks revenge, war between two nations, magical superweapon is constructed). None of those were my actual ideas, I'd like to say.

    If you start with a theme such as 'greed' or 'revenge', or maybe two central themes, you get a better sense of the overall feel of the story. Then come up with a couple of minor/sub-themes which will also crop up (i.e. humanity's struggle to understand its own purpose). Now you know that everything you write within the framework of those themes, should be connected to/driven by one/all of those themes. I will say that these themes should all be connected somehow, definitely to the main theme.

    Joe Abercrombie demonstrates this technique wonderfully in Best Served Cold. The theme is revenge, clear and simple. The characters are constantly driven by that theme, both for the purpose of the main plot and sub-plots. He pulls it off so well that as you read further along, every single character (major and minor) seems to be tangled up in a mess of personal vendetta and vengeance. It makes the story so much stronger as a result. If he'd gone in with no core theme, only knowing that his main character wanted revenge, the overall feel of the story and world would have been lost and it wouldn't have pulled in the reader so well as it did for me.

    Phew... I've written much more than I was planning to! What do you guys think about theme and its importance?

  2. #2
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    This is helpful! I read this about an hour ago but hadn't been able to reply until now.

    I've become stuck with my current wip and, after reading this, I think some of that has to do with losing track of the themes each of my characters is pursuing. I'm not sure it will get me going again but it may lead to a solution! Especially since I've already identified and made a list of my main characters' themes as well as the stories overall theme. Thanks Cirias for helping me get back on track!

  3. #3
    Peckish hippokrene's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Cirias View Post
    What do you guys think about theme and its importance?
    I haven't constructed my WIP around theme or even really thought about it. At this point, it's unimportant to me.

  4. #4
    Book of the Black Earth
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    Although theme was definitely on my mind while writing some stories, more often than not I have no idea what the theme(s) will be until well into the draft. Sometimes it doesn't emerge until the revision stage.

  5. #5
    There is no tomorrow RedMage's Avatar
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    I am thinking I should clarify my earlier post. Despite the OP stating the importance of overall story/plot theme, I was thinking more in terms of individual characters and that is where I found help from this.

    However, I have to agree with Cirias that, when writing a theme-centered story, it is the theme that is all important. My wip is a Halloween themed story with subsequent ideas diverging from the story I tell in this one. Further, my wip began as an 18k word novella written two years ago which I am now trying to expand to a full novel. That is how I can see the themes as I do now. Occasionally, I need reminders of them, such as has now been given to me.

    But this is also the first story I have told with such a theme. For most of the stories I write I find myself in Hippokrene's camp and find theme to be rather unimportant. Perhaps this stems from my thinking of "theme" as "moral of the story" and stories with a specific moral are not as interesting to me. Morals, while not bad, are teaching tools and I see them as often most appropriate with children.

  6. #6
    We Read for Light Window Bar's Avatar
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    Hi Cirias-- I agree that it helps to have a theme in mind, and exactly for the reasons you mentioned. It colors your characters and gives them motive. On the other hand, I've found that once the characters are set free, they get ideas of their own. I'm well advised to keep an open mind, and to make changes in the theme if necessary.

    Becoming too theme oriented runs the risk of becoming didactic. Have fun, and keep up the great blog.

    --WB

  7. #7
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Um, I hate to be the one to say this, but, well, isn't that, well, like Writing 101?

    All my writing classes stressed the importance of theme (in terms of having some idea of it at the beginning). I couldn't start anything without that in mind.

    Am I missing something?

  8. #8
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Again, theme is something that is interconnected and interactive with other components, and where theme comes in depends on the writer's particular process. Sometimes it's the starting point and sometimes it emerges later. Usually, a story will have a good dozen or more themes related to plot, character, style, etc. Themes are seldom one word. Revenge and such are more topics from which themes are extracted, like the cost of revenge is your soul, etc. In Abercrombie's case, there were a number of different themes directly related to his first trilogy, and then he riffed off the Count of Monte Cristo. Cirias has found a structural approach that works for Cirias' process and it may be helpful for others who have similar processes and those who don't but are dealing with theme and structure in revisions.

  9. #9
    It could be worse. ~tmso Moderator N. E. White's Avatar
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    Very true.

    I guess that's the difference between those who write "from the seat of their pants" and those who outline?

    I like all my little ducks in a row and outline the heck out of everything (except my flash fiction). I guess I just figured a novel's primary theme was something folks thought about early on in the process. Yes, it might warp, change, and/or grow as you write, but I figured ya had to start from somewhere.

    Each to their own, as they say. Glad you found something that works, Cirias. I didn't mean to denigrate your discovery. I just thought theme or an idea of what "big idea" drove your story was self-apparent. My apologies.

  10. #10
    www.voxnewman.com kongming's Avatar
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    I don't share this view. A theme comes on its own, organically, around the point where your characters start thinking for themselves and drive the story in a direction you hadn't planned. After you've deleted most of your precious preparations, you hit an 'aha!' moment when you suddenly realize what it's all about. So, coming up with a theme before you've written a word is largely pointless.

  11. #11
    Wirt's Fourth Leg Cirias's Avatar
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    A lot of really great replies to this here. I like to see what everyone elses' methods are as it can often throw some light on my own failings or weak points. I do agree that theme is used differently by different writers and to some it may be less important than to others. For me, I've always tried to be a no-planning, pantser kind of writer, but its never worked. I have to plan to a certain degree otherwise I fall down along the way. As tmso said, it's Writing 101, but it's so easy to forget or overlook certain techniques and processes when you're stuck into your latest project.

  12. #12
    Book of the Black Earth
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    I think perhaps we need to specify terms. "Revenge" is not a theme in the way I'm using it. It is, as Kat said, a topic. Now, "revenge is pointless and ultimately self-destructive" is a theme.

    So, I might have several topics on my mind during the outlining phase, but I don't usually know which way my mind (via the characters and situations) will turn until I'm writing the scenes.

  13. #13
    www.voxnewman.com kongming's Avatar
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    Actually theme and topic are basically the same thing. "revenge is pointless and ultimately self-destructive" is more a thesis

  14. #14
    Fulgurous Moderator KatG's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by kongming View Post
    Actually theme and topic are basically the same thing. "revenge is pointless and ultimately self-destructive" is more a thesis
    It's a thesis but it's the theme. And not every story does a thesis. Revenge can be a general theme in the sense that a book may be looking at different types of revenge with different outcomes and different symbols and themes and so the overall theme is let's explore the topic of revenge. You can start out with a topic, like I want to do something with revenge, and themes then may emerge from the story you've built around that topic. Or you may start with a very specific theme and it could be a thesis statement that you build around. Or you start writing and realize that you are doing a story about one thing that might happen if someone pursues revenge out of an obsessive-compulsive desire for buttermilk, or whatever. And you'll usually have other themes built in around that too, which may be planned or may emerge. General topics can be good as an exercise to get things going. For instance, the Flash Fiction contests provide a topic -- dolls, etc. -- but not necessarily a theme, and the stories that come out of that general topic have all different themes, some of which may be thesis statements and some not.

    Most writers work best with a process of some planning and some winging it, often happening at the same time. So it is very much trial and error, made worse by the fact that an author's process may be different from book to book. Theme can be a big factor in how a particular book ends up getting written. Theme is also something that hooks readers into the book, but it's mutable. Readers will find themes that the author did not intend or consciously intend -- and which may or may not be really there -- and may miss ones the author did. Theme is also a heavy component of style and imagery. So it's important and it's always present, but it may only be the most important, up front thing for an author if that's the way the author works. But when we talk about characterization and plot elements, we are often also talking about theme.

  15. #15
    @PeteMC666 PeteMC's Avatar
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    Setting is everything to me when I'm starting something, themes tend to crawl out of my subconscious along the way while I'm writing it. All my stuff starts in my head something along the lines of "It'd be really cool if we were here, and this happened, and someone did this." The characterisation come second, the "why" of it comes third, and after various other things the literature teacher's beloved "what was the author really trying to say here" emerges around ninth or something like that.

    This author is rarely ever trying to say more than "let me entertain you for a while" to be honest.

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