So far, I’ve been talking about a rather mechanical process in terms of robots and blueprints. I wouldn’t blame you for thinking, ‘hang on, I want to write a story, not a wiring diagram!’ So let’s take a step back from scribbled bullet points and staggering tripods, and make some decisions about topics that are a little more nebulous than what we’ve been dealing with so far. The subjects will be harder to define, but this is where true creativity comes into its own.
Theme engages the reader
Starting with theme, the best definition I can come up with is that it is the psychological subject of the story. It is distinct from the narrative subject, which involves the characters, settings and plot problems we built our tripods from. The same theme could underlie a murder mystery on a generation ship approaching Planck’s Star or a romance set in the court of Louis XIV.
Theme makes a bunch of robots running around and doing things and speak to the reader at a deep level. It is rarely explicit and many readers won’t be consciously aware of it. The writer needs to know what it is because it’s key to the process of moving from a wiring diagram to a story.
The theme needs to be simple enough to be summed up in a short sentence, as it’s very difficult to get a complicated theme to really suffuse every part of the story. As such, theme from the writer’s perspective is a different animal from what is often meant in literary criticism and analysis. Critics often pull out themes the author wasn’t even aware of, and hunt for themes that run through the full canon of an author’s works. That’s their job. It’s not ours, so we can keep it simple.
In The Endocrine Tyranny, my theme was the question of what it really means to care about someone. Steel in the Morning and Newgate Jig both take the theme of how far a man might go to do the right thing with no prospect of reward. It wasn’t until I’d found that theme that the character of Le Méridien really came to life.
I don’t claim that either of those themes are particularly original. I consciously modelled Le Méridien on Raymond Chandler’s man who, ‘down these mean streets…must go who is not himself mean’, described in his iconic essay, The Simple Art of Murder. The same theme is central to many of Hemingway’s greatest works. I can’t compare myself to either Hemingway or Chandler, but I can certainly learn from them and when it’s advantageous, copy from them. If anyone challenges me, I’m not copying, I’m paying homage. It sounds far less grubby.
Strength before novelty
The appearance of the same themes in many great works shows how the power of a theme is far more important than its originality. There are themes in Aesop’s Fables as current now as they were when they were written two and a half millennia ago. If you ever come up with a truly original theme, I will be so impressed I will probably pay homage to you too. If you can’t, don’t worry. The originality that matters lies in the way the elements of a story fit together, not in the individual elements.
Themes tend to be more powerful when they are implicit rather than used to bash the reader over the head. There are great novels where the theme is impossible to miss, such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and George Orwell’s 1984. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen states the theme in the first sentence, albeit as much between the lines as on them: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife’. As the novel develops, it explores the theme of universally acknowledged truth as much as wives and fortune. However, these are exceptions that prove that it can be done, not examples of how it is usually done.
Even overtly political novels tend to keep the politics to the narrative subject and use a more personal theme to give it power. In John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener, the narrative subject is a corrupt pharmaceutical firm covering up a drug trial that went wrong. The theme that keeps us reading is about how far the memory of Justin Quayle’s murdered wife will drive him. Another example would be Graham Greene’s The Third Man, where the narrative subject is racketeering and murder, but the theme is the strength of Holly Martin’s friendship and loyalty to the undeserving and morally bankrupt Harry Lime. For my money, The Third Man is one of the best thrillers ever written and what elevates it to that status is not the plot twists or suspense, although it lacks for neither, but the underlying theme that anyone can understand.
By the time I get to this stage in story development, I may have some idea of what the theme is or I may not. If I do, I still need to sit back and make sure it really fits with the subject matter and the characters. Just because a theme has been done a thousand times before doesn’t stop it adding originality.
For each integrated chronology, write down the theme. It may be one word. It should not be more than a single short sentence.
That’s it. It’s an easy homework day.