"If there were only one truth, you couldn't paint a hundred canvases on the same theme."
I’ve found as I read about the craft that words like theme and premise have a wealth of multi-colored definitions floating lazily through the ether that is the internet. Let me guess—as soon as I said that, you reached for your definition to tell me what they really are. Okay, maybe not. You’re much cooler than that, right? I get it.
Rather than try to sort out the one-true Holy, I’ll just grab a dictionary and run with it like a pair of rusty scissors. (Because what the dictionary says isn’t always what is meant in the contest of the craft, but in this case, it’s a start.)
This isn’t my definition so much as my label that I’m stamping on some ideas so they can be discussed a little.
So, a couple weeks ago I delved a little into what is good fiction, and how I think there is a handful of ways a story might be good. One of those was philosophy—an idea or motif that binds it together. Kind of sounds like that theme stuff above, huh?
In that post, I suggested that a story that strikes multiple notes in the “what is good” chord should have a better chance of being noticed, so a theme (and premise) is your way of striking that note and letting it sing.
Your story might be about zombies or alien invaders, but the theme is the idea it presents, like maybe “unity” when the humans band together and fight off those bastard aliens.
You don’t need one when you start, though. Loads of writers have found their theme while writing.
And hell, half the time, your critiques and readers will find one that you missed anyway.
When you do identify it, you can build upon it. Your story will feature some key moments. Your characters will face some tough choices. Knowing theme, you can find ways to enhance it as you revise and polish.
Lajos Egri, a playwright and guru, suggested that a premise should hint at a character or characters (some people lacking unity), a conflict (leads to), and a conclusion (victory against outside forces).
That Egri fellow is highly regarded—and one hell of a dry and long-winded read. I’m not so strict in my thinking to put forth a single way of doing anything, but I see premise as a refinement of your theme, a step further, a sharpening of a blade, a first tink on the big block of granite. We not only can say it’s about something on the abstract side like “unity,” but we can see other dramatic elements coming out in the clay. (Yep, I just tossed a whole bunch of metaphors into a bag and pulled those out at random.)
I see that Wikipedia makes a distinction, when it comes to theme: what the work is about, and what the work says about the subject. (I just gave them different words, sort of, to avoid confusion.)
I suppose a work can go without one, but what I think is more common might be a jumble of disconnected themes never fully formed, and that can be like splicing movies together, or mixing metaphors, or making three kinds of cookies from one batch of dough. You might do it, but if you do it well, you knew what you were doing and had some experience at it.
"If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea." —Elizabeth Bowen
"To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it."
"Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort."
Last week, I suggested that there is no good writing; or rather, that “good” is actually a heaping handful of different flavored candies. I like peppermint. You like caramel.
Whenever the question of “good” comes up, the inevitable, easily anticipated “it’s all subjective” line will soon to follow, just like a trailer follows a semi-truck.
Here’s an analogy: some people have said, “Sex is like pizza; even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
That sounds reasonable on the surface. Maybe, but what if you're in prison? Is prison pizza still pretty good? That’s dark, I know. Suddenly, we’re speaking to a very quiet room.
There certainly is a lot of taste and personality involved in what one reader likes versus what another reader likes. But, I can’t help that notice some things are liked more and some things are liked less, which makes me wonder if some evaluation might exist, despite all the hormone-ish subjectivity.
And experts evaluate quality in film and book all the time. Are they consistent, or merely reporting through a filter of their own taste buds?
Here are a few ideas. These are considerations, not yardsticks. They’re intended for me, as a writer, to evaluate my work with something alongside of taste and enjoyment.
Authorial Intent and Relative Comparison—We could call it “fitness of purpose.” An author may just aim for a novel of a specific flavor: fun, emotional, philosophical, idea-driven, zombies, post-apocalyptic-mole-folk, or what-have-you. If we have a notion of what the author intended (and that can be a big question in itself), we can compare it to other novels of a type to see how it matches up. Yep. that is hard when we’ve roamed far beyond our own flavor profile.
Surprise, Originality, Insights—Aside from just comparing reactions and similar titles, we can consider how what new elements were brought into the chosen arena, whether it’s elements of fun, emotion, or philosophy. I think a zombie novel with new ideas, emotions, action, and arguments is going to be much better to read than one that rehashes the same old stuff we’ve seen. (Consider the film Maggie for an example of a new approach to a zombie film. It’s got great emotion and philosophy, but it lacked in action, so comes off weak as a zombie flick.)
Focus and Relevance—A story is composed of characters and incidents (the events of the story). Some of those elements will relate directly to, and speak of, the authorial intent of the work. Some will be random elements that either weren’t related or failed to support the core material the way the author wanted. The more unrelated material, the less focused it is on the kind of story the author intended. (Or the author intended something we just don’t grasp, which is a bag of mixed nuts. Again, intent is a viper here.)
Execution—This is a big ball of wax, and those other examples run alongside of execution again. If a work excelled in all of the above areas, but still feature docile character arcs, flat characters, sparse incidents, bloated scene construction, meandering and uninspiring language, etc. Well, it’s still something we can examine and criticize.
These aren’t listed for a way to criticize other works, though they might serve as the beginning of that too. Instead, they’re the ideas I consider when I evaluate my own work, to see if I have a worth project set in front of me or not. And that’s why intent is such a viper. In other works, it can be a big black pit. But I know at some point what my intent is for my own work.
What I don’t do is quibble over the worthiness, the nobility, of the intent. I see no need to criticize a story that only wants to be a good time, or that only wants to illustrate a philosophical idea, or only wants to explore an idea.
Salability and Market Appeal? Well, those just aren’t my forte, so I don’t give them much thought. It’s a fair ball for any writer who does care, though.
Consider this: No book has ever been universally loved. Nada. Zilch. Whatever title you bring to the table, if you spend time looking, you will find a few mehs in the room. (If the room holds all of humankind, that is.)
Universally hated? We might come up with something, if we tried to make it so. Even then, statistically, someone somewhere might claim to like it just to be artsy or contrary.
Classic literature, often favored by critics (and me), still inspires yawns in many everyday readers. Those same critiques often scoff at today’s popular books and films. Yet, they are popular. And yes, this is a bit of an oversimplification. There are exceptions, but those exceptions spawn from individuality, and individuality is why we won’t find anything universally loved by all of humankind. (Go ahead—try to find one.)
Yet, how easy is it to find some blog, book or forums post claiming to tell you what good writing is. Or, how many story structures were born from supposedly analyzing thousands of “good stories” without ever analyzing what the word “good” means?
Some will say it’s purely subjective. Many will say it, in fact. Yet, there are some measures of quality involved in the craft of creating and telling a story, and we shouldn’t forget popularity either. We can’t. Does a fantastic sales-record—often driven by clever marketing—indicate that a book or film is good? If so, then a poor sales record would indicate a book is bad. Yet, both will have admirers and haters.
Thus, the problem, I think, is one of category and definition. Or lack thereof.
Aside from execution and technique, here are the over-arching categories of good that I see:
Reading the list, you might realize that many of the examples could fit into several categories. Disney’s Up is entertaining as well as emotional, and offers a little in the way of interesting ideas too.
In fact, my belief is that a good deal of strength can be found in a story that scores high in several of those categories. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, is quite fun with its giant worms and adventure. There is a healthy dose of emotional punch too. And it’s not short on philosophy or cool ideas, either. No wonder it was among the bestselling science-fiction books of all time.
By strength (yeah, I avoided “good” there), I mean all-aroundness—potential to be enjoyed by critics, consumed by readers, and general just be appreciated by more than just a handful of friends and family. It gives it a greater chance to appeal to an individual reader. (Again, this is putting execution and technique to the side for a moment.)
So, I say, good fiction doesn’t exist, despite our constant struggles to create it and understand it. Instead, I think we gain quite a bit of traction by discarding the word and understanding general categories of what might make up good fiction.
Now, of course, taste matters. And this is where it becomes subjective. The philosophy of Dune might escape some, and might be rather light to others. Similarly, I like survival stories, but other readers like dragons or vampires or zombies or weirdness or a certain kind of narrator. Big huge etcetera. We all have our own preferences, both in subject and in category. Some just want a good time. Some crave an emotional experience, and others are interested in ideas.
That is where writers need to not only write what they know, but write what they enjoy and want to read. If you have zero tolerance for philosophy and no stomach for emotion, then you’d probably well advised to skip those in your story and focus on a roaring good time and cool ideas instead. You’ll have an audience, you glorious heartless monster you.
As must surely be obvious, I took some time off from the ol’ blog due to some changes in the old personal life. There were also minor technical issues with the blog that I just didn't want to wrestle with. Equally obvious, I’ve decided to change the name and look of said ol’ blog for similar reasons.
With all that done, I thought it might be nice to re-launch with some thoughts about why we write fiction at all.
And the answer is pretty much f*ck all if I know, which is to say that it’s personal and varies by each individual writer. Everyone’s got their own demons and toys in the attic. But there is some common ground here. For example, sometimes, we just want to know how to survive a raptor attack.
How to Survive a Raptor Attack
All of the words you know were made up. Some of them came about by accident; others just kind of wandered into being and sat down for a cup of coffee. A few were invented by a clever misfit who couldn’t find the right word for a thing.
But we’ve been telling stories almost as long as we’ve been using words and gestures to communicate. In the early caveman-and-raptor days, (because in my world, they totally existed at the same time), stories weren’t just for fun because we hadn’t invented the Blu-Ray yet. Stories were survival; stories were school. We had stories before we had writing. If cave dweller Bob survived a raptor attack, we wanted to hear the story—not just to share in the experience as sympathetic herd-instinct creatures, but so we could learn about how to survive raptors too. (And we're still telling that story.)
From there, we found we could pass all sorts of things on to our kids, especially moral crap, fantastic tales about how things came to be, and we used to fight off raptors with our bare hands, not them fancy spear-things kids use today.
Today, we haven’t seen raptors in a while, but it’s still a good idea to be prepared, and not just for the raptorpocalypse, but for lousy bosses, unwieldy bureaucratic systems, and the ever-important how to Woo Women (or Men). Stories help us with that. Still. It’s a wonderful reason to be engaged in telling of stories.
The List Goes On
More than just the plain old how-to, both reading and writing are a way to study and understand human beings and the crazy choices we make from time to time (i.e., three times before breakfast, most days.)
But wait, there is more (or less). Some writers just want to entertain, to provide a good time. Some are unsatisfied with the written world they’ve explored, so they try to add to it.
Other writers have something to say to the world. They have a particular way of making sense of something, or a whole shitload of things, and they feel the need to attempt to add their insight to the general kaleidoscope of insights in which we live. Some see literature and modern story as a big, beautiful human-wide conversation about cultures, morals, philosophy, psychology and the human condition.
And the list goes on: self-therapy is a common one. Psychologists have been using storytelling as therapy and bridge building for decades now. Maybe more. Writing about your problems can help solve them. Sometimes, we just want to quiet the voices in our heads.
Exploration—where science studies man and his world, literature can explore the intersection of man and world in ways that may be more difficult for the sciences, though to what extent is debatable. We all study each other. Toddlers learn by watching their parents, and the habit never goes away. Writers just put their observations down on paper through fiction. Toddlers rarely do.
Or how about the exploration of ideas found in speculative fiction—the great What If?
Some see literature as a great human conversation carried on through the centuries, tackling new concerns and ideas as they arise.
O Me! O Life!
BY WALT WHITMAN
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Why I Write
When I write, it’s all of these things, but perhaps not all at the same time. On one day, I may be just looking to tell a rollicking good yarn. The next day, I may have something to say. Another reason: habit may be driving my finger onward simply because I started something and I should probably finish it.
Some days, I just refuse to give up and writing doesn’t need a reason.
But I hope that understanding the reasons can sharpen my understanding of what I do, shape my approach to a writing, or maybe just keep my fingers moving when they’d rather just wrap around an alcoholic beverage of some sort while I watch oh-so-badly written television.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.