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How the Written Universe Works: Exploring Theme part 3, Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders

Several years ago, I took George Saunders’ book, Tenth of December, to the beach as my summer guilty pleasure. For me, the most compelling tale in that collection of short stories was “Escape from Spiderhead.” 

how the universe works themeEscape from Spiderhead is a science fiction story set in a prison. It is built around several themes. The central theme is crime and punishment, and Saunders grabs hold of this theme and runs with it.

He asks us to consider where punishment ends and inhumanity begins.

He gives us the character of Ray Abnesti, a scientist developing pharmaceuticals and using convicted felons as guinea pigs as part of the justice system. The wider world has forgotten about those whose crimes deserve punishment, whose fate goes unknown and unlamented.

Saunders poses questions that challenge us to re-examine our own virtue. Do we have the right to treat a person inhumanely just because they have committed a crime?

Wikipedia gives us this Synopsis: 

Because he was convicted of a crime, Jeff has been sent to an experimental prison where inhabitants are guinea pigs for a man named Ray Abnesti, a sort of warden who develops pharmaceuticals. In an experiment to determine the strength of love, Abnesti puts Jeff in a room with a woman named Heather. Neither finds the other very attractive until a drug is administered and they suddenly fall deeply in love with each other and have sex. This continues until the drug stops being administered when they suddenly lose all love for each other. The process is repeated with Jeff and a woman named Rachel. The next day, Abnesti brings both Heather and Rachel into a room and asks Jeff to decide which woman should be drugged with Darkenfloxx, a drug that causes extreme mental and physical distress. Jeff wants no one to be hurt, but has no preference as to which should endure the drug. Satisfied, Abnesti decides not to administer the drug. Later, Jeff finds himself in a room with another man who he realizes also had sex with Rachel and Heather. He realizes that Abnesti is asking one of the women which one of the men should be given Darkenfloxx. The same result happens each time, and the drug is never administered.

Later, after Abnesti presents the love drug he is developing to his superiors, he says he must go into greater depth and gives Heather Darkenfloxx, saying that Jeff must say exactly what he feels while he watches Heather suffer in order to prove he has no romantic feelings for her. But the Darkenfloxx is so damaging that Heather commits suicide to escape the pain. When Abnesti reveals that he will do the same thing to Rachel to determine whether Jeff has a romantic attachment, Jeff refuses to participate. He insists that the drug should not be used. Abnesti leaves to get a warrant to administer drugs to Jeff that will force him to comply. To prevent Rachel from being tortured, Jeff administers Darkenfloxx to himself, and while under its influence kills himself. A voice tells him that his body is salvageable, and he can return to life, but Jeff declines, knowing he’s had enough of life. Jeff’s final emotion is happiness that, in the end, he did not kill and never would again. [1]

The_Pyramid_Conflict_Tension_PacingSaunders takes a deep dive into the theme of redemption in this tale. He didn’t take the expected path with his plot arc and didn’t opt for revenge by giving Abnesti the drug, which was the obvious choice.

Instead, he takes us on a journey through Jeff’s personal redemption, which is why this story impacted me.

Of course, the scenario is exaggerated, as it is set in a future world. It exposes the callous view modern society has regarding criminals and what punishment they might deserve.

That raises the theme of morality vs. immorality. Who is the real criminal here, Jeff, Abnesti, or the justice system that would even consider funding such a prison?

Then there is the theme of compassion. Abnesti explores love vs. lust for his own amusement. The different drugs Jeff is given prove that both are illusionary and fleeting. Yet Saunders implies that the truth of love is compassion. Jeff’s action shows us that he is a man of compassion.

What does it mean to be human? This theme is a foundational trope of Science Fiction. Saunders shows us that to be human is to be aware and compassionate.

Abnesti demonstrates that one may be genetically and technically of the human species, yet not human in spirit. They are not aware of others as people; without that awareness, they have no compassion, no humanity.

A common theme in science fiction is the use of drugs to alter people’s behavior and control them emotionally. That theme is explored in detail here, ostensibly as a means to do away with prisons and reform prisoners. But really, these experiments are for Abnesti, a psychopath, to exercise his passion for the perverse and inhumane and for him to have power over the helpless.

Jeff is aware of the crimes he and his fellow prisoners have committed. Still, he sees Heather struggling with her dose of Darkenfloxx and states his belief that every person is worthy of love.

Spiderhead (the movie) premiered in Sydney on June 11, 2022, and was released on Netflix on June 17, 2022. The film received mixed reviews from critics.

Tenth_of_DecemberI will say now – the story and the movie are two different things. The film bears some resemblance to the story it is based on but – it is not that story. All writers should be aware that you no longer control the direction of your story when you sell the movie rights.

In Escape from Spiderhead, Saunders’ voice, style, and worldbuilding are impeccable. It is a stark journey into the depths to which some humans are capable of sinking in the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge.

This short story was as powerful as any novel I’ve ever read, proving that a good story stays with the reader long after the final words have been read, no matter the length. His questions resonate, asking us to think about our true motives.

Where do we draw the line between crime and punishment? When is a legal act really a form of criminal behavior? What does it mean to be human?

For me, that is what good science fiction does—it raises questions and requires us to think.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Tenth of December: Stories,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tenth_of_December:_Stories&oldid=1093865742 (accessed June 27, 2022).

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Exploring Theme part 2: Jane Austen #amwriting

Born in 1775, Jane Austen is remembered today for her six novels, the most famous of which is Pride and Prejudice. Austen touched on familiar themes throughout her work, including romance, youth, wealth, and poverty.

plot is the frame upon which the themes of a story are supportedEven today, her humor shines with sharp-edged wit delivered without condescension. Her most memorable protagonists rise above the trivialities of life that absorb the sillier characters.

Via Wikipedia:

With the publication of Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816), in her lifetime she achieved modest success and, as the books were published anonymously, little fame. She wrote two other novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818, and began another, eventually titled Sanditon, but died before its completion. She also left behind three volumes of juvenile writings in manuscript, the short epistolary novel Lady Susan, and another unfinished novel, The Watsons. [1]

Austen’s work delved deep into the issues women faced, which were not discussed in polite company, and she did it while navigating the shark-infested waters of her society. Her central themes were:

Financial insecurity: The need for a gentlewoman to marry well for financial security rather than love.

Patriarchy: The sure assumption that men know best and the societal value of a man’s opinion as opposed to a woman’s opinion.

Women as property: The value of youth; a young woman is more desirable than an older woman, no matter how intelligent and thoughtful.

Hubris: Pride – and the humbling of pride.

The six published novels deal with social class, gender and society’s expectations, and morality.

What is right, moral, and proper? This theme of honorable morality winds through all her work.

And the other major theme, one opposing honorable morality, is pride. Pride loves power. It is listed as one of the world’s seven deadly sins because pride can become so powerful that it creates its own morality, crushing humility.

hubrisPride is a powerful theme because it is the downfall of many characters in all literature, not just Jane Austen’s work.

These two themes, pride and morality, power Austen’s satire, give weight to her humor and support the triumphs and tragedies of her characters. Austen saw pride as a form of hubris.

Jane Austen’s novels have inspired many debates. Some claim they are politically conservative, and others argue they are progressive. Those who see conservatism in her novels claim her heroines support the existing social structure by doing their duty and sacrificing their personal desires.

Those who see progressive tendencies in her work argue that she is skeptical of the patriarchal right to rule, evidenced by her ironic tone.

Houghton_Typ_805.94.8320_-_Pride_and_Prejudice,_1894,_Hugh_Thomson_-_Protested

Illustration by Hugh Thomson representing Mr. Collins, protesting that he never reads novels

Austen understood the political issues surrounding the gentry. As a member of that society, she was able to pose questions relating to money and property, framing them in such a way they were entertaining while being thought-provoking. Her satire exposed the patriarchy, the arbitrary inequality of inheritance laws, and the perilous economic position of women. In an era when few career choices were available for women, the social system enforced a lifetime of servitude, either as a wife, possibly a teacher/governess, or as a servant.

Throughout Austen’s work, there is a tension between the prerogatives of society and the desires of the individual. Austen is often considered one of the originators of the modern, interiorized novel character.

How did she achieve this?

Again, Wikipedia tells us:

Austen is most renowned for her development of free indirect speech, a technique pioneered by 18th-century novelists Henry Fielding and Frances Burney. In free indirect speech, the thoughts and speech of the characters mix with the voice of the narrator. Austen uses it to provide summaries of conversations or to compress, dramatically or ironically, a character’s speech and thoughts. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen experiments extensively for the first time with this technique. For example,

Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum?

[…] However, Page writes that “for Jane Austen … the supreme virtue of free indirect speech … [is] that it offers the possibility of achieving something of the vividness of speech without the appearance for a moment of a total silencing of the authorial voice.” [2]

Pickering_-_Greatbatch_-_Jane_Austen_-_Pride_and_Prejudice_-_This_is_not_to_be_borne,_Miss_BennetClearly, Mrs. Dashwood feels that ensuring her sisters-in-law are not impoverished would make her only son less rich. Less appealing to other affluent families.

So, Jane Austen used her characters’ thoughts and their spoken conversations to subtly weave her themes of pride, the human tendency for greed, and social inequity throughout the narratives of her novels.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: when your writing mind has temporarily lost its momentum, and you are stretching the boundaries of common sense, it’s time to stop and consider the central themes.

I find it helps to remind myself that theme is one of the elements that drives a plot.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Jane Austen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Jane_Austen&oldid=1073632619 (accessed March 15, 2022).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Styles and themes of Jane Austen,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Styles_and_themes_of_Jane_Austen&oldid=1063968945 (accessed March 15, 2022).

Media: Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Houghton Typ 805.94.8320 – Pride and Prejudice, 1894, Hugh Thomson – Protested.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Houghton_Typ_805.94.8320_-_Pride_and_Prejudice,_1894,_Hugh_Thomson_-_Protested.jpg&oldid=351956491 (accessed March 15, 2022).

Media: Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Pickering – Greatbatch – Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice – This is not to be borne, Miss Bennet.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Pickering_-_Greatbatch_-_Jane_Austen_-_Pride_and_Prejudice_-_This_is_not_to_be_borne,_Miss_Bennet.jpg&oldid=351959807 (accessed March 15, 2022).

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The Interpretive Layer of the Word-Pond: Theme

Deep within the narrative, mingling with other heavier aspects of Story and sinking to the bottom of the Word-Pond is theme. A fundamental underpinning of the story, theme can be a tricky fish to get a grip on. Theme is a subtle aspect of any written work. It is rarely stated in a bald fashion, but even if it isn’t obvious, theme is a unifying thread that goes through the story from beginning to end.

According to Wikipedia:

A theme is different from the subject of a work. For example, the subject of Star Wars is “the battle for control of the galaxy between the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance.”

The themes explored in the films might be “moral ambiguity” or “the conflict between technology and nature.” [1]

In other words, theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and sometimes it is an unstated moral for the reader to infer.

I’ve said this elsewhere, but theme is an idea-thread that winds through the story, supports and gives meaning to the plot. On the surface, each of the different commercial literary genres looks different. Each genre is deliberately tailored to fit a wide variety of niche readers. Yet, from shelf to shelf, we will find commonalities, themes that all stories tell in one way or another.

Genre is the bookstore label guiding a reader to the shelf containing books they are most likely to enjoy.

But some aspects of Story are universal and independent—they roam through all the genres from children’s books to literary fiction and connect them.

Theme is a universal feature of Story.

We all recognize Romance as a theme. It can be the major theme or a supporting theme. Romantic love is a defining feature of the genre of Romance. But what are some different aspects of love that can be found in every genre from fantasy to sci-fi, to horror, to crime fiction?

  • Love gained (the fairytale romance)
  • Love lost
  • Tragic love
  • Selfish love
  • Passion
  • Brother/Sisterly love
  • Dangerous Attraction
  • Friendship
  • Parental love

Love is only one theme despite the fact an entire genre has been built around it. Others abound, large central concepts that build tension within the Story.

Here is a brief list, just a small jumping off point for your creative mind. Some are large themes that entire genres have been built around, and others are good supporting themes:

  • Separation and reunion
  • Grief
  • Nostalgia for the good old days
  • Ambition
  • Fall from Grace
  • Rebellion and revolution
  • Redemption
  • Coming of age
  • Crime and Justice
  • Midlife crisis
  • Alienation/loneliness
  • The hero’s journey
  • Humanity in jeopardy
  • War
  • General dehumanization of society
  • Conspiracy
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Plagues
  • Religious intolerance
  • Abuse

Again, Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, offers us wisdom:

(Theme) can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis (hypothesis; idea)—the text’s or author’s implied worldview. [2]

Sometimes we can visualize a complex theme but can’t explain it. If we can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common theme that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi, or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level. When you see a dog grieving the loss of her mistress, or a husband grieving for his wife—what do you see? You can’t read their mind, so you must look for clues. What behaviors inspire empathy for their sorrow in you, the observer?

Highlighting a strong theme can be a challenge if you begin without a plan. A plan is not always required because, in some stories, the flash of inspiration we begin with is a strong theme. The theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is. In my case, I need a plan fifty percent of the time.

Whatever the case, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects deliberately placed within the setting
  • Conversations

Other times, it is difficult to decide what the underlying theme is, and the story is weak. It has no legs and won’t ring true until you find out what the underlying theme is. This requires a little mind-wandering on your part. You must ruminate on the character’s quest or dilemma. Ask yourself what the root cause of the issue is—if it is a crime, why is crime rampant. Is it a societal problem? If the core dilemma is unrequited love, what are the roadblocks to a resolution?

Themes exist in every story. However, when we are first laying down the story, themes are like your drunk uncle—they hang out in the bar until closing time when they have to weave their way home through dark alleys and the neighbor’s shrubs. When you have finished your first draft (closing time), if you still haven’t found the defining theme, look in the local bar in the first chapters for clues your subconscious mind has sprinkled throughout the story. If you still haven’t got a theme, pick one and develop it.

At the surface level of the Word-Pond, each genre looks widely different. But when you go deeper, you find that all literary genres have one thing in common: they have protagonists and side-characters who all must deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (arts),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(arts)&oldid=848540721 (accessed July 27, 2019).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed July 27, 2019).

Images:

Photograph, McLain Pond in July, © 2018 by Connie J. Jasperson, from the author’s private photos.
Worked to Death, H. A. Brendekilde. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:H. A. Brendekilde – Udslidt (1889).jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:H._A._Brendekilde_-_Udslidt_(1889).jpg&oldid=355191092 (accessed July 16, 2019).

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Chaos and Order #amwriting

Theme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end. It binds the elements of character, conversation, action, and reaction, making the story cohesive. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.

A common theme in literature is the juxtaposition of chaos and stability. Good versus evil is a common trope of genre fantasy. Evil is usually portrayed by taking one or the other of these concepts to an extreme.

Author L.E. Modesitt Jr. has taken the theme of chaos and order and built his Magic of Recluce series around the contrasts and conflicts of the two fundamental forms of magic arising in the world of Recluce. Each side is explored from the protagonists’ POV in different books as the series progresses.

Modesitt digs deep and discovers the way each side’s magic works and the fundamental changes the mage goes through from the use of magic. He lays bare the moral and ethical values that each side holds dear. Politics and the slim justifications we hold dearly to for the sometimes-inhumane way in which we treat others is central to his work, showing that neither side is without sin.

When it comes to good and evil, each considers themselves morally superior, and believe they are the side of good. Both sides are wary of those who walk that gray path in the middle. This allows Modesitt real opportunities to put his protagonists through the wringer.

The late Roger Zelazney’s brilliant Chronicles of Amber series also details the distinctions between Chaos and Order, and moral and ethical challenges of those who travel from reality to reality through the shadows by walking the pattern, with each shadow growing more radical depending on the distance from Castle Amber (which represents Order). In several of his works, elements of each are combined freely and interchangeably.

Zelazney’s Jack of Shadows and Changeling, for example, revolve around the tensions between the two worlds of magic and technology, which manifest as order and chaos.

But what is chaos, and what is order?

Google defines Chaos as

Google also defines Order as:

Either side of the coin, when taken to an extreme, can be truly evil.

Consider chaos, or Anarchy. When a culture descends into anarchy, you have an absence of government and absolute freedom of the individual. While this frequently begins as an attempt to allow for individual freedoms without state interference, history shows that what follows is the emergence of a violent culture that is beyond the reach of the law.

There is no law as we see it, and no one capable of enforcing it. The strongest, most violent thugs rise to the top and frequently war with each other, while the common person is caught in the middle. Followers of each warlord are rewarded with the spoils of conquest, which are often goods taken from the common citizen who must somehow survive under that tyranny.

Now let’s look at order: totalitarianism, or total order can also be a form of tyranny. Everything is static, and nothing changes. There is centralized control by an autocratic authority, combined with the political concept that the citizen should be totally subject to absolute state authority. No divergence from the norm can be tolerated, and good, obedient citizens are rewarded, while deviants who are seen to be free-thinkers: intellectuals and artists are persecuted and imprisoned, or killed.

Anarchy=instability and a breakdown of society. Totalitarianism=lack of growth and stagnation of society.

For most people’s comfort, a good society allows for both law and creativity.

In extreme types of societies, power is everything, and drawing negative attention to yourself is dangerous. Thus chaos-based societies are usually represented in literature as having an underlying order that holds them together, and order-based societies are often represented as requiring the ability to grow and change, but within certain parameters.

The theme of order and chaos can really power a story-line, and the way you perceive them will not be the way another author sees them. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. and Roger Zelazney couldn’t be more different in the way they portrayed these concepts.

If you haven’t read either of these two authors’ works, I highly recommend them.


Credits and Attributions:

This post first appeared here on Life in the Realm of Fantasy in the post Theme: chaos or stability by Connie J. Jasperson © Oct. 12, 2015.

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Writing to a Theme #NaNoWriMo2017 #amwriting

November 1st begins the merry month of madness known as NaNoWriMo. Once again, as I have for the last seven years, I will spend the thirty days of November on an intensive writing binge.

Every day I will sit and write at least 1,667 NEW words on my current work in progress. If I do only that, I will have 50,000 words by Nov. 30th, which will bring the rough draft of that book nearly to completion.

But I generally manage between 2,000 and 4,000 words a day, and I work on several different projects. This year, while I WILL work on the rough draft of my current work-in-progress, my official project is another collection of short stories, poems, and flash fictions, all of which will be written to a variety of different themes.

The reason I need to build the backlog with a wide variety of themes is that most anthologies and many publications will call for submissions based around a central idea–such as  redemption, bridges, asylum–a large concept that  unifies the disparate stories.

So, my plan is to write to as many different themes as I can think of. Hopefully, if an opportunity presents itself later, I will have the perfect story ready, one that will only need some revising and editing.

One question I hear often is “how do I identify the theme of my story?” I have discussed this before, but it bears mentioning again. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, a thread that is woven through the entire story, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.

Sometimes it’s difficult to write a short story unless you start out with a theme in mind. The same can be said for novels, although the theme can emerge more slowly than in short stories. For me, writing to a theme makes the process easier because half the work is done—I know what I’m writing about.

Several of the stories I will be working on are for themed anthologies with open calls for submission, but whose closing dates are rapidly approaching. When I made my list of proposed stories, I searched Submittable for open calls, so I know the desirable themes in advance. Some publications have submission dates that are quite a ways out, some have short deadlines.

Knowing the trending themes publishers are asking for is crucial to building your backlog with salable stories, so if you don’t have a Submittable account, you should get one.

What I hope to do in each story is to layer character studies, allegory, and imagery to emphasize the central theme and support the story arc. Sometimes I am successful, other times, not so much, but I still keep trying.

Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape their reactions and personal growth. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle. These are the themes that were most powerfully depicted in the books that rocked my early reading world and are the sort I still seek out.

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#amwriting: theme

ofmiceandmenTheme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end, binding the elements of characters, conversations, actions, and reactions. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.

Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, describes theme as:

The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text’s or author’s implied worldview.

Often we can visualize a complex theme but we can’t explain it. If we can’t can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common emotion that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level.

Perhaps you have a story about a woman who has just lost her husband to a preventable accident. Her grief is the main theme. When you learn the accident that killed him was preventable, you know the subtheme: anger. The protagonist’s goal in this story is to prevent such accidents from happening again–perhaps she must battle a corporation or take on a government agency. Rage is the motivator that forces her to wake up each day and take on the Goliaths, but at the root of the story it is her grief that is the driving force behind her subsequent actions.

But the main theme of grief is an extremely complex experience, as anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one will tell you. It is a fundamental emotion, chaotic and weighing heavy in the heart of one who grieves. It is experienced in many identifiable stages with elements of loneliness, anger, guilt, and deep suffering. It is sometimes accompanied by thoughts of suicide.

Everything your character sees and experiences in the opening pages underscores and represents her sense of loss and inspires the accompanying emotions of anger, futility, and depression. As her story progresses and she begins live despite her loss, she will still be affected on many levels and to a certain extent, driven by those complex emotions. While she is interacting with others who are happy and who believe she has gotten past her pain, you can employ allegories and symbolism to paint the deeper picture of her mental state to show how she is deeply depressed and possibly suicidal.

Once your protagonist has beaten the enemy, what is her reaction? Without the battle to sustain her rage, does she learn to accept her loss begin to find happiness? Or does she allow herself to spiral into ever worsening depression?

Perhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people faces terrible challenges in a war. On the surface, this looks like it is all about the action, but in reality, it is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is brotherhood: the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together, creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.

How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.

These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.

What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?

Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.

Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.

Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.

allegoryScience Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.

Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.

On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.

Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.


Credits:

Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed February 22, 2017).

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#amwriting: using allegory to underscore theme

the Matrix PosterGreat novels, like great movies, are built of many layers. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than what is seen on the surface. It’s the big meaning, and often it’s a moral. Love, honor, family, redemption, and revenge are all common, underlying themes.

Allegory is an essential tool of the author who wants to convey important ideas with the least amount of words. One of my works-in-progress is a contemporary novel. I need to convey a Gothic atmosphere in this piece and yet maintain the setting and time-frame of a novel set squarely in the  21st century. The way I am doing this is through the use of allegory. With symbolism in mind, I try to approach writing a scene as it would be portrayed in a movie. Each conversation is an event and must advance the story.

Consider this scene from one of my favorite movies of all time, The Matrix. The films of The Matrix trilogy pit man against machine in a clearly drawn battle, but they also reveal that the humans are more machine-like than they think, and that the machines possess human qualities as well. These are the obvious themes, but there are several underlying concepts going at the same time.

The movies in this series are famous for the action, and rightfully so.  But great choreographed martial arts sequences can’t convey the concepts the authors needed to express. The advancement of the plot hinges on dialogue. Dialogue drives the action and connects the fundamental ideas of the story through the intentional use of allegory. The authors never lost the way, because every aspect of that script is steeped in symbolism that directly points to the overall theme(s).

Quotes from the matrix

 

The conversation concerns a drug deal, but the overarching idea of the blurred line between humans and machines is never lost.

The key words are in the first line, written on Neo’s computer:

  1. The Matrix has you,
  2. the third line,follow the white rabbit,
  3. and in that very last line, telling Neo to unplug.

The obvious plot of The Matrix series of films details a questioning of what reality is and portrays Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. Dig slightly deeper, and you see that it is about escaping that program, at which point the audience sees that a larger theme is in play: fate vs. free will.

Even before that larger concept is made clear, the conversations that happen in the course of the film all advance that theme, even the minor interactions, from the first conversation to the last.

The storytelling in The Matrix movies is a brilliant example of employing heavy allegory in both the setting and conversations to drive home the motifs of man, machine, fate, and free will.

The themes are represented with heavy symbolism in the names of the characters, the words used in conversations, and even the androgynous clothes they wear. Everything on the set or mentioned in conversation underscores those themes, including the lighting. Inside The Matrix the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens. In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.

In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.

Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.

The creators of the movie even used the lighting as an allegory showing that Neo’s world is filtered through something else: The Matrix.

The arc of the story is driven by

  1. who has the information,
  2. when they learned it, (and when the audience learns it)
  3. what they did on learning that information.

In our own work, if we don’t keep the arc of the story moving toward the final conclusion with each scene, we will lose our reader. To that end, we disseminate information in small increments, with the reader learning what she must know at the same time our protagonist does. Using symbolism and allegory is a way to get the most information out there in the least amount of words, but it requires intention on the part of the author. Words, phrases, and setting must be chosen and the narrative’s prose must be crafted.

Crafted prose does not mean flowery prose. If you reexamine the above excerpt from The Matrix, you see lean dialogue, spare and to the point. It is in the symbolism of the setting, their names, their attire, and the authors’ choice of words that we get the most information. When Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer. Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion.

We build the overall arc of the story from scenes, each of which is a small arc, in the same way a gothic cathedral is constructed of many arches that all build toward the top.  The underlying arches strengthen the overall construction. Without arches, the cathedral wouldn’t remain standing for very long.

Theme is a thread that winds through the story and supports the plot. Using allegory and symbolism in the environment to subtly underscore your themes allows you to show more without resorting to info dumps.

Picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie, and consider how you can use allegory to support your story arc. When we are immersed in reading it, we don’t notice the heavy symbolism on a conscious level, but on closer examination it is all there, making the imaginary real, solid and concrete.

By using allegory and conversations to create many layers, we can build memorable stories that will stand out in the reader’s mind.

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