Themes are an interesting topic for writers. Do you deliberately write to one or see what you come up with and then look to see what theme emerges?
I have done both. Sometimes a theme really does emerge after you’ve written the story because you’ve focused on portraying this particular character, what they do, what they don’t do and the consequences of all of that for them and others in the tale.
In my flash fiction collection, a strong theme of poetic justice emerged in several of my 100-word stories. This made it easier to “group” my stories when I was collating the collection. Yet I had not set out with the deliberate intent to write lots of stories with that in mind as a theme.
The sub-conscious plays a crucial role in all writing. Writing that strikes home to people always comes from the heart (and therefore the things that matter to you).
At other times, I have deliberately picked a theme I want to write about and then develop the characters who will carry this off well. I think it a good thing for storytellers to vary their techniques here as I’ve found it keeps me from ever getting into a rut. You don’t just stick to one method of writing for ever and ever, amen.
The big danger with doing that is you can end up just “churning” work out. The trick to writing “formula fiction” is to write it so well it doesn’t appear to your reader as if you are writing to a formula! (I find formula fiction a big switch off).
Varying the technique from time to time keeps you on your toes.
It isn’t just stories with the big themes, of course. Music has them too. One of the things I loved most about my cyberlaunch was picking the music to go with it. I deliberately went for one of my favourite things about music – stories in song.
I included Dave Edmunds’ album track, Creature from the Black Lagoon, which is a horror song but told from the viewpoint of the monster. This is a marvellous twist and ideal for someone who writes twist in the tale stories, so it went in!
I also chose Richard Marx’s Hazard, which tells the story of a guy suspected of doing away with his girlfriend. He protests his innocence in the song and knows the small town in which he lives has never liked him because he is different.
Both tracks conveyed a lot of characterisation and atmosphere in a few minutes!
The theme from Dave Edmunds was, for me, there is always an alternative viewpoint! Okay, you’re almost certainly not going to root for the monster here, but the song did convey the monster was not deliberately being cruel, as we would understand that. This is an intelligent guess but the writer, I suspect, approached this theme by getting into the monster’s head and working out why it was behaving the way it was for the purposes of the song. The theme of the “there is always another side to the story” would have emerged from that.
In the case of Richard Marx, the theme here is small town prejudice and I suspect the writer started with that and came up with the character to convey it. Certainly, that is how I would have tackled this topic. I strongly suspect the theme is powerful enough for a whole album!
Classical music too is full of stories, especially opera. I’m not keen on the stories of Carmen or Madame Butterfly though both are brilliantly written (and I do love the music), but then, although I don’t mind dark stories, I find tragedy difficult.
Tragedy can so easily be overdone and go into melodrama, which I loathe. I want the characters to overcome tragedy as much as possible or to somehow show it is not going to blight their entire lives. That certainly isn’t the case with Madame Butterfly! (Is Pinkerton the most hated character in opera? He’s got to be a strong candidate. For anyone who doesn’t know the story, do follow the link and, above all, listen to the music.).
Themes can be remarkably wide ranging too. One of the most popular themes has to be the love story but that can take in stories of betrayal, tragedy, redemption and so on. It can cover all ages and backgrounds.
Incidentally, the one tragedy I do have time for is Romeo and Juliet. What I like about that is the ending and how the families react. Again I’m not going to say more on that. Hamlet, frankly, I did wish had a happier ending but can appreciate why Shakespeare wrote it the way he did. He was certainly following the character arc through to the logical conclusion. And the theme of revenge is a very powerful one.
Starting a story by picking the theme first can lead to interesting twists. How often does a character surprise you by what they come up with as you are writing the story? Something comes out of the blue, you realize the character really would say or do that and you have to follow where that lead takes you. It is nearly always better than what you first came out with.
(I’ve found I can’t ignore this. It’s like an itch that has to be scratched. You have to find out why this development has happened and it nearly always reveals more to the character than you had at first anticipated. Go with it, this is coming out of your sub-conscious and will lead to a deeper, more realistically portrayed character).
I outline my stories (yes, even my flash ones!) so I have a starting point and an end to work towards but I deliberately keep my outlines flexible enough to allow for character development like this. But it all helps to keep writing fun and allowing your characters to “breathe” like this brings them to life for your readers, whether or not you started with them or the theme first.
Read interviews with Chandler’s Ford writer Allison Symes: <a href=”http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/interview-chandlers-ford-writer-allison-symes/”>Part 1</a> and <a href=”http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/interview-chandlers-ford-writer-allison-symes-part-2/”>Part 2</a>.
Read <a href=”http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/author/allison-symes/”>blog posts by Allison Symes</a> published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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