Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Defining And Using Theme Part 1

Defining And Using Theme
Part 1

Here are some previous posts discussing Theme as a separate element in fiction structure.





Story Springboards Part 3 is about The Art of Episodic Plotting - largely dependent on mastery of Nesting Themes as described in "What you can do in a novel that you can't in a movie."


Theme is one of the defining characteristics of genre, but genre defining themes are huge, broad, almost all-inclusive, so that you, as a writer, can write any story in any genre.  It is the plot that imbues the genre with the overall theme.

For example, the theme of Romance is always about Love, usually Love Conquers All, ending in your primary couple cementing a life-long Happily Ever After relationship.

"Love Is Meaningless or Irrelevant" throws a novel out of all the Romance genres, sub-genres and even out of the "Love Story" category.

"Science Conquers All" is the major theme of "Science Fiction."

"Belief In God Conquers All" is the major, over-arching theme of Christian Fiction.

Commercial Fiction audiences (any medium) search for and devour artistic works by THEME.  Theme defines whether you like or don't like a piece.

How true that is for today's audience is illustrated by the popular News Media (ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NBC) -- all emphasizing one theme, while Fox News walks to a different drummer.

What exactly is the difference?  The Events? The Facts? No, the interpretation of reality defines the difference in significance of the facts, and selects which Events have any significance at all.

Theme is the difference.  Theme statements are bald, on-the-nose declarations about the nature of Reality or "Truth, Justice And The American Way."

But actual themes are Art -- and Art is, as I've said before in the posts on Tarot -- which is "the alphabet of the left hand."  A theme is a non-linear conceptualization of the macrocosmic All.  It is "holistic" -- 4 or 5 dimensional.

We all acquire a concept of the nature of existence, of our "Self" and relationship to Others very early in life.  After a certain age (different for different people - but remember the adage, "Don't trust anyone over 30,") we accept incoming data and file it in pre-defined compartments in our minds.  Any data that doesn't fit a pre-existing compartment is considered false, and usually discarded.

Yes, prejudice is built into humans -- so create some Aliens who do not sport this feature in their brain circuitry.

For humans, it has been a survival edge - the short-cut to understanding what is a threat and what can be ignored.

Art lies at that level of human development.  And theme is the summation of the structure of our minds at that level.

Pleasure happens when we receive confirmation and reinforcement of our mental model of the macrocosmic All.  That is the source of the intense search for sexual release after surviving a harrowing adventure with near-death at every turn.

Success is a re-enactment of that survival-pleasure.  Finding your Soul-Mate and securing that Happily Ever After ending is Success writ large.

So pleasure reading for entertainment is sought among themes that Confirm our unconscious assumptions.  The more unconscious our assumptions, the more we thirst for confirmation.  The psychological term is Confirmation Bias -- we tend to believe that which matches what we assume, and disbelieve that which challenges what we assume.

More than that, as mentioned previously in these blogs, we seek to belong to a Group or sub-Group among those we associate with daily.  The Tribe, the people you work with, or are related to, or live among -- we, as humans, need acceptance.

Quite literally, we need acceptance to continue to exist, to survive among the challenges that can literally kill our bodies or figuratively kill our spirit or will to live.

So, again, to generate your Aliens - figure out a biology that would lack that need for companionship, or perhaps even fundamentally reject it.  Note we have animal species on Earth who are "loners" -- carve out "Territory" and associate with another only when driven by hormones.

Themes are always basic, easily stated, child-level assumptions about "reality" because they are in fact the very first things we learn about being alive.

Themes are the structure of our mentality and emotions and the blending of the two.

Themes are about Truth.

We all know there may be something behind what we can see of the Universe that is objectively "true" -- but we, as humans, are very unlikely to penetrate to that level.  We live or die on the usefulness of our assumptions, our leaps of faith, and our intuition.  To survive, we must act on incomplete information, most of it imagined to fill in the gaps between tested facts.

We live in subjective reality.

We seek to share our subjective reality with the others around us, and in fact need to share more than we need reality.  Humans will change their unconscious assumptions to fit into the Group upon which they are dependent.

What of an Alien species that didn't have such a "need to fit in" feature?

These unconscious assumptions are the "axioms" of our reality -- they don't get proven, but are used to prove the "postulates" (I do hope all of you have learned Geometry Proofs) and then the postulates are used to prove the answers to given problems.


The "given problems" we tackle in Alien Romance novels are "ripped from the Headlines" of the day.

In A SPOONFUL OF MAGIC Irene Radford tackles the Liar - and the white lie, and the forgivable lie.

We touched on A Spoonful of Magic in this post on writing the inner dialogue of the Character being lied to: https://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2018/04/dialogue-part-14-writing-inner-dialogue.html

I've discussed many other novels in these blogs which raise issues prominent in our current headlines, twist them to a different perspective, and treat them from an Alien point of view.  It is my favorite type of literature, so I talk about it a lot.

There are two basic ways of creating a novel-theme from these unconscious assumptions.

  1.  You can start with the broadest, most abstract conceptual topic and narrow it down, step by step, until it's small enough to fit into a novel, or series of novels.
  2.  You can start with whatever you are burning up to say about the world we live in, the "answer" to the problem of the day, and search for what enveloping categories surround that answer which is so very personal to you, what Postulates prove your answer, and what Axioms are necessary to prove those Postulates.

Whichever process you use, once you have a solid grip on what answer your Main Character will advocate, you will need to chart the path to that answer that your Main Character will follow.

Whatever answer you choose remember an answer is a theme and every theme is part of a larger theme, like the layers on a pearl.

Also never forget the essence of story is conflict, and each side of a conflict has a theme.

The two main characters who are in conflict have arrived at different answers.

They may be using the same Axioms and Postulates to prove their answers, but still getting different answers and thus advocating different courses of action.

One or the other (or both) have made an error.

It is possible the error is rooted in adopting the unconscious assumptions (beliefs) of the Group the Character had to fit into as an infant/toddler/child -- family, school, religion, street gang.

Correcting an unconscious assumption requires making it conscious, and that is usually a traumatic experience -- (technical literary term for this sensation is Cognitive Dissonance.)

Theme is abstract.  You have to symbolize it.  The answers your characters advocate are concrete.  You have to show-don't-tell what they advocate and why.

You can't talk about the story.  You have to tell the story.  Sometimes it is best not to know what the theme is until you've written out the whole story, scene by scene.

At that point, you will be second-drafting to cut out any material that obscures the conflicting thematic statements.  That process is called editing.  It's hard and time consuming.

Professionals learn to target a theme and write the story to highlight and showcase that theme, cutting side-issues as they go.  This saves production time, allows for meeting contract deadlines with a manuscript that is the size called for in the contract, and saves wear and tear on the writer's emotions (not to mention the writer's family.)

A "prolific" writer will soon specialize in variations on a single master theme.  Having thought it through and found the exact note of Cognitive Dissonance their specific readership enjoys the most, the prolific writer creates a "brand" of their byline, and produces a body of work that satisfies a specific readership.

On the other hand, a given writer may find they've said all they have to say on that thematic topic, and either want to change topics, or perhaps have an Agent suggest a change.  In that case, it is very good practice to change the byline, giving the new set of works a distinctive "brand."

To discover what genre a story-idea belongs in, identify the master theme of the genres you like most, and see whether the new Idea can be expressed via one of those master themes.

The very existence and possibility of the HEA in reality is a master theme and the favorite of the Romance genre reader.

If you want to write a novel that flatly disproves the possibility of the HEA, find another genre for it.

Defining a theme is difficult.

Using a theme is difficult.

Defining and Using in tandem is not so hard at all.

You might find it easiest to avoid endless rewrites by knowing more about what you don't want to say, rather than knowing exactly what you do want to say.

Sometimes, (each writing project is unique), you have no clue what your subconscious is trying to say with this story.  The Characters take over and just hurtle on through the plot leaving you in the dust.  The second draft will go quickly and easily if you have a firm grip on what you are NOT saying, and just write down what you are saying.  Oddly, you will read it and hear yourself think -- like reading something written by someone else.

We, as humans, don't know what our unconscious assumptions are -- and most often is it best that way.  Artists, on the other hand, specialize in revealing the bald truths of the unconscious.

Theme is the structure of artistic composition.

We all select features from the reality around us and compose a view of the universe that gives us a sense of security and comprehension of reality.  Describing one person's reality to another person is called Art.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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