Wednesday, November 2, 2011

WHEN FICTION ISN’T

I’m a relatively late starter to fiction writing. My eyes were opened to the possible power and influence of fiction by seeing how hypothetical stories can help managers relate to possible future scenarios, which helps them to plan for such possibilities. Even though the stories’ details will almost certainly be wrong, presenting scenarios in story form lets people identify with them in a way that isn’t possible using only a formal descriptions of the scenarios.

This got me interested in the relationship between fact and fiction in ostensibly fictional stories. The key is the distinction between a story’s plot and its underlying theme.

Unfortunately, terminology can be a problem here. By ‘theme’, I mean the story’s deeper meaning, lesson, or moral, such as ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. It’s usually related to the protagonist’s character development; eg, learning to give the benefit of the doubt. The theme is distinct from (although related to) the story’s genre, topic and plot.

For a reader to be able to relate to a story, the story has to be applicable to the reader. However, a fictional story’s plot is usually directly applicable to nobody! For example, very few readers are actually boy wizards. Even in non-fantasy genres, no reader is ever likely to find themselves in exactly the situation described in the plot of any work of fiction.

In contrast, a story’s theme can be directly applicable to all readers. Even though readers may never have to fight an evil wizard, they can nevertheless identify with the need for courage, tenacity, ingenuity, etc.

The fact that a theme is relevant to people’s reality reveals that it isn’t actually fiction. So, in a fictional story, the plot is fictional but the theme is not (or, at least, it is not intended to be: some readers may disagree with the theme and deem it false.)

The distinction between plot and theme is fundamental to many passages in the Bible. Probably none of us will ever experience the plot in any of the Bible’s parables, but we’re all called to apply the theme behind every one of them. So, regardless of whether we consider the plots to be fictional or not, we treat the themes as non-fiction.

Because readers can relate directly to a story’s theme, it plays a significant role in hooking readers. Our writing can benefit if we give serious thought to our stories’ themes, and not just their plots and characters.

I’ve found that selecting a theme for a sequel, or a follow-on book in a series, can be tricky. While it’s easy to devise a new plot, it’s not so easy to avoid repeating the previous story’s theme—or worse, not having a theme at all. Repeating the theme requires the protagonist to go through the same character development journey, which suggests that they never actually completed the journey in the first volume despite probable indications therein to the contrary. And if there’s no theme, then the character undergoes no development at all.

Do you put conscious thought into your themes, or do they just happen?


21 comments:

  1. This is so true Peter! I put a lot of thought into my themes. I want each story to have a particular message behind it, so I usually structure my plot & develop my characters with that in mind.

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  2. Hi Peter.

    What an inspiring post. As far as writing goes, I am a real late starter and I realise, as I read your post, that the theme is what separates a book good from the rest.
    And I write because of a theme. I hope that anything I write inspires people to become more like my hero - and that is always Jesus!
    So every little story deals with different aspects of His amazing character - without the readers realising what is happening.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Great post Peter. The novels which touched and taught me the most, have had profound messages delivered through the theme. I think of the classic 'Redeeming Love' by Francine Rivers and a favourite from last year, 'Love's Pursuit' by Siri Mitchell. This is what I aim for in my own writing.
    Blessings
    Dorothy :)

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  4. Wonderfully thought provoking Peter. Its so easy to repeat not just the themes but our descriptive sentences and words and not even realize it.

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  5. Yes Peter, the salt must be there. I have just finished reading a book that seemed to me to have no theme at all. Or if there was one, it escaped me and I was left feeling what was that all about?

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  6. Really interesting post Peter, thanks.

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  7. Thanks, Peter. Really thoughtful blog. All my novels have a strong, central theme(and maybe more)eg my last one was based on Heb 12:15 about not letting the 'bitter root' defile many. It can be tricky though to keep this in mind at times when writing and not to get carried away by your characters as they take on a life of their own.

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  8. Your post made me realise how difficult it must be to keep the theme going throughout the whole book. I only write short fiction pieces (where it's easy) and predominantly non-fiction where the theme is the obvious focus. I am now seeing the non-fiction books I have read in a different light and understand much better why some grab me and some don't:) Thank you!

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  9. I hadn't thought about a books plot and theme before, but that is what I am doing in my current writing. The plot is the story, the theme is the lesson learned (hopefully for the characters and the reader). Good to read this post! Thanks!

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  10. I first started writing with no theme in mind. But it soon became apparent there was one (about self worth and how much God loves us) so I made a more conscience effort to work on that, and the theme now has almost equal importance as the plot. The two are intrinsically linked together. God knew what he wanted included in the story, and I'm glad I noticed :P

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  11. Fascinating! I figured I would try to write something yesterday and started with an abstract scene. That's it a scene, I have no idea where it is going, but by the end of half an hour I had a page and an idea of a plot and figured something may come of it. I have a feeling the theme will just come out. But I really appreciate your post and the comments others have said as to how they build around a theme. As long as the plot is still fun and exciting and the theme isn't preached the two can work together lovely. I look forward to working out the themes as we read each other's work in the future!

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  12. Hi Peter,
    Yep, no matter how fast-moving and action-crammed a plot, it's the theme that gives a story its life. I like to begin with a theme too, and I think we need to make sure it's very strong without being 'in-your-face'. I sincerely believe that, as authors, we can have faith that our theme will surely shine through without endeavouring to make sure it's in every chapter and on every page, which is what crosses the line into preachiness.
    And like you, I've also noticed the trouble some authors/film makers have faced when people have demanded a sequel and they want to deliver without quite having a new theme.

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  13. Thanks for the thought provoking post Peter. I write mainly non fiction but I do agree with you that grabbing a reader with the story and the theme is important. Something has to gel with a reader to make him or her keep reading. I would guess that theme sometimes just happens as the story unfolds in the Author's mind? And at other times a theme grabs the Author and so the story evolves out of the theme? Thanks for giving me some food for thought!
    Cheers,
    Anusha

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  14. That was interesting and thought-provoking. Some of the greatest writers, like Shakespeare and Dickens, had themes that are relevant in any age because they say something about human nature. I like books that have a strong theme, as well as strong characters. I can't say I've had enough experience of my own yet though to answer your question, "do you consciously choose themes"?

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  15. I never really thought of themes, but as I don't outline I think they came about through what i am writing.
    My current WIP (Nanowrimo) is full of believing in God, but still ignoring His calling. Believing in God, but not accepting his answers to prayer.
    MEL

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  16. I totally agree. Plus, what is the point of writing a Christian book if it doesn't have a theme? The theme is where the real message of the book can be propagated. I have found in books that I have written myself that themes can be more compelling if they are real to me, the writer, if they are an issue that has greatly affected or impacted my own life. By covering these themes I can really make a potentially strong impact on the reader.

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  17. Like, wow man!!! I had to read it a few times Peter, but seriously cool post. Themes are something I apply to each individual character - and then one to the story as a whole. I usually start off with a certain theme, but at times the occasional one develops along the way. If you don't have them, how does the character grow and learn?

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  18. Peter, great post! Theme is universal and I've heard it said that if you study a number of books by an author you can usually pick up on their underlying core themes. And readers are often drawn to favourite authors because they relate to the core themes that underpin their stories.

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  19. Liked Narelle's comment about favourite authors - I think it might be true! Theme draws on, and responds to, the deep longings of our hearts. As writers we navigate different areas depending on who we are and what we believe in. A book without theme is a book without that depth - a character without a heart perhaps or a writer without the courage to pry in the deep places? Interesting.

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  20. Great post, Peter! When I plan my novels I don't start with a theme. I start with my characters strengths and weaknesses. While writing the story the growth in my characters usually brings out the theme of my work. It's not something I consciously think about until I'm in the third or fourth draft when it becomes apparent in the work.

    Theme, to me, is a subconscious process that develops with the writing as we go deeper with the characters. Narelle makes a great observation. Authors have core themes that underpin their stories. This is an author's branding and it's impossible not to come through in our work because it is a truth that lines up with our true identity.

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  21. I rarely start with a theme. I begin with premise and experiment with a plot to weave around that. Sometimes a theme emerges and yes, it's most likely to fit with a selection of abiding passions.

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