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What I'm Trying to Say. -- by Andrew Mcqueen

The theme should be the consistent driving force of the plot. 

-Writing for Comics & Graphic Novels with Peter David, pg. 64


 When I started writing for comics, I thought I had everything in order with the usual essentials. Plot. Setting. Characters. Story structures. Everything. But in recent years, I came across something else that plays a central part of storytelling and it's the theme. There have been many discussions about how it works in fiction and the role it plays. Most of the time it's the "moral of the story" but it's not always the case.

When you look at Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, you think Sarah Michelle Gellar fighting the scum of Sunnydale's nightlife. That's just only the surface of the series. What the series is truly "about" are the highs and lows of high school from teen issues, desperation for acceptance, and what happens when you sleep with that "nice" boy. Basically it appealed to anyone who thought high school was hell.

  Everyone including the the show's leading lady was dealing with their own end of teen angst while fighting vampires, ghouls, and beasties.

As I think about my own stories, I wonder what themes did I put in without even knowing it. The first thing in my graphic novel I found was redemption. A member of my book's supporting cast was inspired by a relative who was sent to prison for a few years, and he decided to keep his nose clean when he got out. Seeking redemption is a relative thing for all of us when wrongdoings of the past are hanging over us. What makes my secondary character "real" in that regard is how he's looking to build on a second chance despite the fact what he's done will never be erased.

The theme of the story should be as solid as the story's plot. If it's not as strong as your plot, then your story can't sustain itself. What you should do is think about what you're going to "say" in your story while planning the story in your mind. For me, nothing's important as what you're "saying" in your fiction.

(From Dreaming in my own Words, Feb. 23, 2016)    

Posted by Andrew Mcqueen 22 May 2016 at 01:58
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Responses to this blog

Harpalycus 22 May 2016 at 11:24  
An interesting suggestion that is worth thinking about. But my first reaction is that while some write deliberately themed novels, many do not, and yet they seem to work pretty well. Thinking about it, it is pretty difficult to tell any story, other than one of bland domestic boredom, that would not have some sort of theme embedded in its very structure. Consider the vast range of possible 'themes', conflict, resolution, love, anger (think Homer's Iliad), venegeance, absolution, kinship and so on until the crack of doom. Eternity. Boredom.
So, my immediate response is that one should, by all means, explore themes in your writing if that is what you want. If it isn't, just write a cracking good book and then sit back and wait for the themes to emerge. They will.
Trevose 22 May 2016 at 13:06  
I'll confess I've long either ignored or only given passing thought to "theme" in my fiction. That is, until the last two years. I've since come to believe that understanding the theme — or deeper issue — that is driving your main character can be a tremendous source of energy for your work, as Andrew speaks to in his blog.

I began to better understand theme and what is means to a story reading Cron's Wired for Story. And last night (as luck would have it), I read the extended "look inside" portion of Alan Watt's The 90-Day Screenplay: From concept to polish, which (in spite of its unfortunate title) has an insightful discussion about such things, enough so that I was compelled to order it.

I agree that books, and good ones at that, can be written without deeper themes. I suspect that the "action" genre tends to have less concern with themes. But I also think works without these universal issues, these deeper themes, tend to come and go quickly precisely because they lack any appeal to what it means to be human.
Latieplolo 22 May 2016 at 15:26  
I think that many stories (books, movies, anything) generally fall into a theme without much planning on the part of the writer. With strong characters or an interesting world, these can be good pieces. Anyone who's listened to director's commentary or sat through tedious class discussions of symbolism know that writers often create themes or "say something" without intentionally doing so. But why would you want to pay so little attention to something fundamental in your work? If you care about making something great, something truly memorable rather than just another cheap little book that a few people will read then quickly forget- why not intentionally develop your work on a deeper level? Why would you settle for making something you know is less than your best?

Paying attention to theme gives your work a purposeful, professional level of consistency. You should use it to inform everything from the plot to the characters to the metaphors and descriptions you choose. All of my favorite books use this to their great advantage. For example, Hanya Yanagihara's disturbingly good work The People in the Trees only briefly mentions pedophilia, but it echoes throughout the piece. Leaves are described as tender and young, a turtle's pink little tongue reminds the narrator of a boy he knows. The work is saturated with the theme so that, when the climax of the story occurs, it seems inevitable and truly upsetting rather than just gratuitous.
Imjustdru 23 May 2016 at 02:12  
Paying attention to theme gives your work a purposeful, professional level of consistency. You should use it to inform everything from the plot to the characters to the metaphors and descriptions you choose.
That's what worked for me, Latieplolo. Marvel's X-Men are an example of the statement in my humble opinion. Mutant superheroes feared and hated by humanity, yet laying their lives on the line to protect them is what I didn't understand when I was younger. Looking back at it I realize the comic hinges on real life issues such as racism, bigotry, ethnocentrism, prejudice, religious persecution, etc.

Professor X was inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as Magneto was inspired by Malcolm X. One has the "dream" to bring two worlds together as the other is fighting for peace "by any means necessary."
Onalimb 24 May 2016 at 12:53  
Theme, deeper meaning, is what makes a story resonate with me. But just having a theme isn't enough. A subtly-rendered theme, one that asks interesting questions and explores possibilities, will strike a chord with me, whereas a writer who tries to lecture, or who makes the theme an add-on, rather than a natural aspect of the story, will simply annoy me.

It's been said that you won't know what the themes of your story are until you've completed your first draft. I've certainly found that to be true. If I try to write to a theme, I fail miserably. If I work on plot and character, and let the themes emerge from that work, they do.

Azarial 24 May 2016 at 17:31  
I have heard the same thing, about it emerging naturally then the author can enhance it in edits. But, like all things in creative endeavors, I suspect it can work either way depending on how the persons brain processes. I don't know which way would work best for me as I've only done the discovery method, but I also know that I form ideas in my head based around a 'concept' that could be linked to a theme. I also know that once I've written something I don't like to do major structural changes that would be needed to enhance a theme after the fact. So for me, I wonder if maybe thinking about it before might work best.

I also hate overbearing themes, so the struggle would be to select it and be aware of it but find ways to show it organically. Interesting to think about either way.
Gavincarte 24 May 2016 at 23:35  
I love looking for themes in the novels I read. It makes the story about something.
Rellrod 25 May 2016 at 02:04  
Yes — I always prefer, other things being equal, a story that says something (even if it's only "love is wonderful").

I'm leery of starting with a theme, for fear of falling into lecturing; but I've been known to do it. (Who was it that said, 'If ya got a message, use Western Union'?) (Which is a great line if anyone's old enough to remember what Western Union was . . . )

But ideally the theme emerges organically from the story, as practically everyone is saying above.

Adventure is tragedy triumphed. (Sherwood Smith)

Rick Ellrod's Locus (blog and Web site)

Margotg 26 May 2016 at 19:53  
I could be wrong so don't quote me, but I seem to remember Stephen King saying in his book 'On Writing' that he finishes his first draft then goes back and re-reads the story to figure out what it is about. In other words, the theme. The third time through, he tweaks and enhances the language to sharpen and enhance the theme. An organic approach.

I agree with Rellrod's comment above about starting with a theme in mind. One must be careful the theme doesn't overpower the story and end up sounding like a lecture or a sermon.
Alexmcg 29 May 2016 at 03:26  
Theme for me is not something I consciously worry about until later drafts, and mostly to make sure I'm not hammering the reader with it. The theme, like tone and voice, needs to be consistent through the novel, but not call undue attention to itself. I don't know how many of you are old enough to remember the old children's book which were written with a 'moral/theme' in mind. By the end of the book I was sick of hearing about whatever the author had in mind to educate young minds.

The best themes are an invisible part of the plot until they hit you on the blindside and reshape everything you just read.

Leexid 8 Jun 2016 at 13:36  
This is a matter of semantics for me. From what I read in the article, you're using 'theme' the way I would use 'premise.' For me, premise is the drive for story purpose. Of course, I don't mean the popular definition of premise: a plot synopsis. I mean premise as in what's the purpose of writing this story in at the start?

A story may be able to work wo a theme, but a story wo a premise is rambling and aimless. I can't think of many (any) successful stories wo some sort of premise (purpose).

Most famous premise of all time: "There's no place like home." Mr Baum's purpose throughout the entire story is to prove this point, thus it's reason to be. What this story is truly "about."

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