Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.18: Setting as Theme

Your Hosts: Brandon, Mary Robinette, Dan, and Howard

Theme is one of those high-falutin’ concepts we’re often reluctant to approach in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way. In this episode we’ll talk about how our themes can be communicated through elements of our settings, deepening reader engagement with the things we write.

We offer examples from our own work, and from things we’ve watched or read which have done this in ways that resonated well for us.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Rob Kimbro, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Pick a sensory thematic element, and make it recurring. Determine a reason for it to appear in each scene.

Thing of the week: Babylon 5, by J. Michael Stracynski.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Theme may sound pretentious, even high-falutin’ and bitter, but every story has theme, whether it is put in on purpose or something going on that the reader finds. It’s easier to work with theme in the early stages of planning, perhaps as a cell in your outline spreadsheet. You can use small setting details woven through different scenes to subtly reinforce theme. E.g., bullet holes in a window to show that a room is in a tough neighborhood. The presence or absence of stars. Story beats, missing things, reinforced things, can give you these subtle moments and chills. Tie a repeated image to a character moment. Look for subtle ways to reflect the theme in each scene, with elements that serve a dual purpose. You can also use worldbuilding and attention to reinforce theme. Do worldbuilding triage, pick the most important elements of your story and spend your time there. Short fiction reinforces making sure everything serves multiple purposes. Check what is already on the table that you can reuse. Think about the evil robot monkey, and the rotating clay. Take one idea, approach it from different directions. Use different viewpoints to explore the same thing from different sides.

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 18.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Setting As Theme.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette. 

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Brandon] All right. So. Theme. This is one of those things that I love, but I know is kind of a little bit pretentious. 


[Brandon] The more I write, the more I notice theme in books, particularly the things that authors have inserted intentionally, or in films.

[Dan] Yeah.

[Brandon] It just gives me shivers.

[Dan] Well, I don’t think it’s p… I think we see it as pretentious because we all had to sit through high school English classes reading the Scarlet Letter or whatever. So we have this very kind of high-falutin’ almost bitter view of theme. But every story has theme. Even if you didn’t put it in on purpose. There’s always something going on that you can find. I, too, have started thinking more strongly about theme and what a story is saying, almost, than I am looking at the plot in the early stages of planning.

[Howard] Theme is a lot easier to work with now that I’ve started putting it in my outline spreadsheet…


[Howard] In its own cell.

[Brandon] We kind of… Looking worldbuilding-wise, there’s two major divisions I want to talk about on this podcast. First is using small setting details running through different scenes to reinforce subtly your theme. The second, which we’ll cover in the back half, is using your worldbuilding and what you spend your worldbuilding time on as a reinforcement of your theme. But let’s talk about the first one. How… What do I mean by this? This idea of little details in your setting as creating theme?

[Mary Robinette] I don’t know, Brandon. What do you mean by this?


[Brandon] Well… I’m talking about the way that often times… You’ll see this in filmmakers and in writers, where they will insert objects of description. Often times in the podcasts, we’ve talked about how… I use Dan’s great example. He said long ago on the podcast if you want to show maybe that a room is in a tough neighborhood, you show bullet holes in the window. By narrowing in on a small object that you describe in detail, you can often evoke a larger setting feel. Now, the more I write, the more I look for those little things to be something that is thematically connected to a lot of other sort of ideas that I’m having run through the story.

[Mary Robinette] I wound up doing that in Calculating Stars with the presence or absence of the stars.

[Brandon] Explain more.

[Mary Robinette] So, this begins with a meteor strike. I open, and I say that my characters are in the Poconos doing stargazing. If she had known how long the stars would be hidden, she would have spent a lot more time outside with a telescope. Through the course of the rest of the book, I talk about how the stars are not there. The different times that she should have been able to see stars, or people who were now going to grow up without clear memories of stars. Then, towards the end of the book…

[Brandon] Spoiler!

[Mary Robinette] Spoilers. She does see them again. It is a representation… It’s a thematic representation of having achieved goals that were taken away at the beginning.

[Brandon] It gives you chills when you read it. You don’t have to have noticed actively what Mary was doing by mentioning the absence of something, because we are keyed to pick up on these things. To pick up on story beats, to pick up on things that are missing, things that are reinforced in a story. Even if we don’t say, “Oh, I see what she’s doing. She’s making absence of stars a theme until we get the stars at the end.” You don’t have to notice any of that. But as a reader, it gives you those subtle moments.

[Mary Robinette] There was a book that I read… I narrated years ago that… It’s not a book that I can recommend, unfortunately. It’s… Should not have been an audiobook, but what that writer did with theme was amazing. Thematic residences and one of the images that she used was the light through a window onto snow. It would appear in different places. It always was in these transitional moments. By tying that image with this transitional emotional character moment, you started to have these things happen where you would see that light in the window and you’re like, “Oh, no. Oh, no, oh, no, oh, no.”

[Brandon] Someone who is very good at this in film is M. Night Shyamalan. I love in Unbreakable how if you watch this, one of the characters is almost always presented for the first time in their scenes as a reflection. A door opening and in the window if it, you see the reflection, or seeing them in a mirror, and things like this. It just gives a slightly skewed view of this character that makes you think something is off here, because I always have my perspective flipped. It ends up really working in the movie. It just… Punches you in the face without you realizing that it’s doing so.

[Dan] One of my favorite examples… That I use when I teach theme is actually just Star Wars. Episode Four, a New Hope. One of, I think there are several themes. One theme is sometimes you have to rely on something bigger than yourself. The movie, from the very first shot of here’s the tiny little spaceship and there’s the big giant spaceship they can’t possibly hope to defeat is filled with all of those moments of overpowering evil, or we have tried this and screwed it up. Just… The thing that makes it such a great example is that those things are going to be there anyway. Because it is a quest story. Then, just using that, turning it into the theme, makes the final thing where they blow up the Death Star… Spoiler warning…


[Mary Robinette] What!

[Dan] Makes it very satisfying. Much more so than any other given explosion in a movie because you’ve been thematically prepared for we can’t do this, we can’t do this, oh, now we’re going to use the Force and we can!

[Brandon] I’m sure…

[Howard] At the end of the movie, they can’t see the star anymore.

[Mary Robinette] Ooh.

[Brandon] I’m sure there are no more Death Stars. I’m glad that they took care of that.

[Mary Robinette] Whew. Boy, yeah. Me too.

[Dan] Dodged a bullet on that one.

[Brandon] How do you do this without it standing out too much? I can see some of my early efforts at creating theme in my books feeling too obvious.

[Howard] I… Putting it in a spreadsheet helps me. Because, by explicitly stating it openly in the spreadsheet, I’ve gotten that explicit author’s message, author’s message, out of my system, and now I can look at, in other cells, as I’m looking at other parts of the outline, I can look at what are the subtle ways in which this can be reflected? What are ways in which these two themes can work together in this character’s arc? Because I got the explicit stuff out in the open, where I can stare at it and I can be thinking about the subtleties.

[Dan] In my historical thriller, which at time of recording is called Ghost Station and for all I know will be out under a different title by the time we release this episode. I have no idea. One of the themes I was playing with was the idea, because it’s 1961 in the middle of the Cold War, so I was playing with this theme of how once the superpowers get moving, you can’t stop them. All I did… Rather than try to be overt about that is I just filled the book with trains and music boxes and clocks and gears and this concept of you’re just a little cog and the machine is going to keep going whether you want it to or not. It never beats you over the head with that idea, but it’s always there in the background.

[Mary Robinette] I think that that’s a really good example because it demonstrates the dual-purpose. For me, the thing that… Is that making sure that there is a dual-purpose, that you don’t just have a window over snow…

[Dan] let us now pause and consider this important window.

[Mary Robinette] Right. That all of these trains and things are doing a function in that world. That’s where the worldbuilding aspect of theme comes in. It’s not just being by itself… David Lynch does this. He’s one of my favorite examples of making the setting be the theme. One of the things, in Twin Peaks especially, although he explores this in a lot of his stuff, is there’s always a flickering light bulb. Because one of the things he’s fascinated with is being in between spaces. That you’re neither in the light or in the dark, that you’re in this spot in between. So this flickering bulb is a very Lynchian thing that you see. It’s very much part of the atmosphere, it’s very much part of the world, but it also carries this thematic core to it as well.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week, which is, again, not a book this time.

[Dan] Not a thing. So, we’re going to talk about Babylon 5 really quickly. That’s big old…


[Dan] What are you laughing about?

[Howard] Real quick.

[Dan] The idea that we can talk about it real quick. I somehow missed Babylon 5 the first time around. Which… I don’t know why or how. But… It’s… They’ve just barely this year… Or last year, started streaming it. So I’ve been going through… I actually keep a blog where I analyze each episode the first time I watch it. I am learning so much about storytelling, about show don’t tell, about setting, and about use of theme. One of the great things Babylon 5 does is set you up to make false assumptions on purpose because it’s going to reverse them later, and the way that it does the design of the alien species and all of these other things are all built around the central themes of vision and redemption and things like that. It’s really very clever.

[Brandon] One of my favorite things about it was the worldbuilding of the aliens and how… I do feel they did a really good job. The very different species reinforcing the different themes of that show.

[Brandon] For the second part of the podcast, let’s talk about that. Where you as a writer spend your time, therein will lie the reader’s attention, heart, and interest. So, what takes the bulk of the time in your pages and where do you spend your worldbuilding time? I’ve said many times before, you can’t do everything in every book, it’s so you are going to have to by necessity do worldbuilding triage. Where you’re going to pick the most important elements of your story and spend your time there. This leads to theme, I think. I think where you spend your worldbuilding time will lead to theme. How can we do this intentionally, and not accidentally, or should we even care?

[Mary Robinette] I actually think this is a place where it… Honing your skills as a short story writer is a really good thing. Because we have to have, when you’re doing short fiction, you have to have everything doing multiple purposes. That’s one of the things that can really make theme pop and kind of sing, is that… It’s not doing that single thing. So, for me, one of the kind of nuts and bolts things that I will do when I’m trying intentionally add theme and make sure that it’s doing multiple things… In short fiction, versus when I’m writing novels, I’m always looking at what is already on the table that I can reuse. Whereas novels, I’m always like, “What new thing can I bring in?” So, for me, if I’m looking for a thematic element, like an evil robot monkey, it’s all about the clay, and it’s about clay and turning. So I try and make sure that my language reflects that, and that if he picks up a piece of clay, that he spins it or he rotates it. It’s not just that he picks up the clay. So that I’m trying to make sure that everything is doing dual purposes. So I think that that’s one thing that you can do, is not just look at, “Oh, I have to get on a train.” But also, can you hit multiple aspects of this thematic question and reuse…

[Brandon] What I like about that also is it often forces you to take one idea and approach it from a couple different directions.

[Mary Robinette] Exactly.

[Brandon] As opposed to introducing multiple different ideas. Which usually leads to a stronger interpretation of theme. What else do you guys have? Any suggestions on how to use… How to divide your worldbuilding time and your attention so it will reinforce the theme?

[Howard] I’m always worldbuilding first and foremost in the interest of is this going to be something that there was a reason to draw it. There was… I want some of the sense of wonder, I want it to be fascinating, I want it to be science fiction. The Oafan race, the balloon people, those have been a lot of fun for me. In terms of those characters, that race of sophonts and theme, they’re hydrogen balloons. Fire, instant death. Getting popped hurts a lot. So violence, for them, they’re… Even syllables, K sounds, to them aren’t even in their language. Violence is really, really dangerous. Yet, they have a huge fleet of warships. They know how to be violent. They know when to be violent. The way in which they justify their huge fragility with their military might is itself a fascinating theme. It was not what I intended to do when I created them. But when I got to the current point in the story, I thought, “Well, there’s this one… Ooh. That’s what they’re for.” That is exactly what they’re for.

[Brandon] You know, I hadn’t thought about that, but of course where it’s really working is to them, any little small amount of violence has large ramifications, so they embody… I’m not sure which maxim this is, but it’s the one that’s like if you’re going to shoot, make sure you’re shooting… There is no overkill.

[Howard] There was a line in there that I loved when I wrote it, and I got a lot of good feedback from it. Where someone said, or one of them said, “Attention. We have a firing solution on you. Please surrender immediately.” “How did you find me?” “Surrender and we can tell you.” “No, I’ll…” Then they fire. Then she says, “Why am I still alive?” “We use the word firing solution when firing is actually an acceptable solution.” They have fired and they haven’t killed her. They’ve just taken her prisoner and disabled her weapons. I loved that a lot. Because they’ve got her life in their hands. But they have a very precise shot that is going to disable. That is a firing solution. Turning that phrase was fun.

[Dan] So, this one is kind of similar to what Mary said about having something serve multiple purposes. I’ve talked before about how in Partials, one of the themes that I was dealing with there was the generation gap after the apocalypse. The adults see the world as fallen, and the kids see the world is beautiful. I found that just ruins were a chance to explore that. Because seen from one angle, this destroyed, dilapidated house used to be a house, look at how great it used to be and now it’s all fallen apart and overgrown with weeds. Seen from another angle, look, nature’s coming back. Nature is reclaiming this and it is beautiful. There’s a tree growing in the middle of the floor. So you can use different viewpoints to explore the same thing from different sides.

[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and break it here. Mary Robinette, you have some homework for us?

[Mary Robinette] So, what I want you folks to do is I want you to pick a thematic element. You’re going to weave this into a work in progress. Look at the five senses. Pick an element from those five senses that’s going to be a recurring theme through the thing. It can be a flickering David Lynchian lightbulb, it can be the sound of a whirring fan, it can be a scent of roses. Whatever it is. Pick something. Figure out a reason. Don’t just put it in a scene. Figure out a reason that it is in each scene. See if you can weave that through.

[Brandon] Awesome. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.