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

15.02: Writing Between the Lines

Your Hosts: Brandon, Victoria, Dan, and Howard

Victoria Schwab, who also writes as V.E. Schwab, joins us this year, and in this episode she helps us cover that deep concept of “theme,” and how we as authors can state our themes without coming straight out and stating them—writing our themes “between the lines.”

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take something you’ve completed, but which is still in draft form. Write down three possible themes. Then compare this against what your alpha/beta readers tell you what they think your themes are.

Thing of the week: A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: Theme? First, forget about your English class essays. Theme is an exploration of an idea. Theme begins at the beginning of the story, and coalesces throughout. Theme is not the moral of the story. Theme grows out of what your characters are passionate about and where the story goes. Motif! How do you learn the theme of your story, and how do you strengthen it? Revision. What do your readers tell you? You can start with a theme in mind (e.g. Hollywood formula), but you do learn as you write. Instead of theme, think meaning. Why are you telling this story, what is the point of the story? What questions are you asking in your story? How do promises at the beginning of the story tie to theme? Build promises, mantras, ideas, instead of looking back at the theme. The promises at the beginning are the base of the arc that the characters experience. What the story is about makes it a story instead of just a collection of events. Think of the way the message in a commercial is not explicitly stated, and yet… we know what it is. That’s theme. Can you overdo it, too much subtext, too blatant a theme? Of course. Avoid the soapbox, unless that is what you really want to do. Revision is when you pull back, or hit the theme harder. If theme is too hard to practice, try working on foreshadowing.  

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode Two.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing between the Lines.

[Victoria] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Victoria] I’m Victoria.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We have special guest this year Victoria.

[Dan] Yay!

[Brandon] Tell us about yourself.

[Victoria] I’m so happy to be here. I’m both Victoria and V. E. I write as two people, but I’m only one person. I make things up for living like everybody here today, I feel like. I’m the author of Shades of Magic, Vicious, and Vengeful. Basically, a lot of books that are about heroes and monsters and villains.

[Brandon] And all the stuff we love.

[Victoria] All the stuff in between.

[Brandon] Victoria’s going to be joining us all year. So, hopefully, we will be able to make good use of you.

[Brandon] This week, we are doing listener questions, like a lot of what we’re going to be doing this year, and we’ve lumped them into groups. This group is about theme and subtext. Which is kind of a heady thing to be starting off with…


[Victoria] Yeah.

[Brandon] With Victoria. So, tell us, Victoria… No.


[Victoria] I was going to say, don’t put that on me.

[Brandon] The first question is, is there a way to use character introduction to help frame the story’s theme? Maybe we should talk just a little bit about our thoughts on theme first, and then kind of get into these questions. Do you guys have thoughts?

[Howard] You know what, if you’re… First of all, the answer to the question is yes. The useful answer has tools that describe how to do this. Theme, for me, is a mixture of what type of story it is, like, is this a mystery story or is this a thriller? Technically, that’s not theme, but if it is a thriller and one of the themes is trust, then having a character where during the introduction we feel mistrust and we feel tension immediately telegraphs to the reader that, “Oh. That is…” We just stated the theme right there. You don’t want it to… I use this metaphor a lot. You want it to taste like fresh green beans, not something that came out of a can. So you use words that do not explicitly say trust and tension.

[Brandon] Today we’re talking about trust.

[Dan] Theme is tricky and theme freaks people out because we’ve all been through English classes where we had to write essays on it. The thing that crystallizes it for me is somebody said that theme is an exploration of an idea. So, for example, love is subject matter. But love makes fools of us all, that’s a theme. So, in Star Wars, the theme of episode four, A New Hope, is sometimes we need to trust in something bigger than ourselves. You see that question explored throughout. People are on both sides. Han says, “No, we don’t.” Obi-Wan says, “Yes, we do.” Everything that Luke goes through is connecting with that theme in some way.

[Victoria] I actually think it’s really important that theme begins at the beginning of the story. Because it’s not something like a moral that happens at the end of the story, it’s something that coalesces over the course of the story. The introduction is your opportunity to create a baseline for your character. So whether that’s… The theme is trust, and so we see distrust as Howard is saying or whether that’s belonging, outsider/insider culture is a theme in many of my books. But I don’t want you to ever be able to pinpoint it to one scene in which we’re like, “Yes. Now I grasp the theme.” So I think understanding where our characters start, both in a physical space and an emotional space and a psychological space. These are important in order for us to build the theme over the book.

[Brandon] Yeah. I think that is really astute. Pointing out the difference between theme and moral. Because I think that a lot of newer writers might think that moral equals theme. They don’t. They aren’t the same thing at all. For me, a lot of my themes, and most authors I’ve talked to, it’s something that grows naturally out of what your characters are really passionate about and where the story goes, where you start saying, naturally, as a writer, “Hey, I’ve got a character who’s like this. If I put in a contrasting character who’s got a different opinion, they play off of each other so well.” That just, well, immediately starts establishing a theme.

[Victoria] I always think of motif. Because, like motif is kind of the physical, actuarial, for theme. It’s the thing that we engage with on a material level over the course of the book. So I think… I always shudder away from these more amorphous things like theme, and I try and ground them in the physical of something like motif. So I think you have to imagine it not as something that happens in one place, but as something that begins at the beginning and continues with you in one form or another throughout the entire story.

[Brandon] So, another question we get asked along the same lines is, how do I learn what theme my story has, and how do I strengthen it?


[Dan] This is why revision is so important.

[Victoria] Exactly.

[Howard] I’ve got homework that will cover that. But, a large part of how you determine your theme is what your beta readers, what your alpha readers are telling you they are coming away from your book with.

[Dan] Or even just you yourself. Having finished it and like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that this was so much about X, but it totally is.”

[Victoria] Talk about one of the absolute necessities of first drafts is not only to get from point A to B in your story, not only to get down something that you can make better, but really, you learn what your story’s about by writing your story. It’s very hard, even if you think you know what the story is about before you start writing it, a majority of the time, you discover that that’s a bare impression of what the story is actually about by the time you get to the end of the first draft.

[Howard] Let me use a car metaphor briefly here because… The point A to point B thing. When you are driving from point A to point B, the route that you take, maybe you’re on the freeway, maybe you’re on surface streets, those might define where your theme is going to come from, but theme may be things like I can feel the quality of the road through the stick shift when I’m driving. The shoulder of the road is rough. The other cars are very annoying. All of these things, when you are on a trip, it is not just the destination and the path you took to get there, it’s… It’s the friends we made along the way.

[Victoria] [garbled]

[Howard] Sorry. I knew that was going to happen.

[Dan] That’s okay. I just wanted to say, I do think that you can preload things. You can absolutely learn more about it after the fact, and especially if you’re just starting out, this is a very heady concept, and maybe you need to get a few books under your belt, but theme is something that I always use in the outline stage to help me figure it out. When we talk about Hollywood formula, that’s one of the three things you know before you start plotting. So, you can have it in there first, you’ll just… You have to kind of learn your way through it.

[Victoria] I want to pick a less aggressive term for it. I think theme… Because you’re talking about the fact we’ve all come through secondary education, most of us in this case of learning that in the… I have to write an essay. What is the theme of the thing I read? I think we have almost a negative built-in connotation of what is theme. So I wish that we had some terms that felt a little bit less terrifying when you’re approaching a story, as though you have to know everything about it. I think more like… I ha… I don’t like the word moral, even though I used it in a negative way already. But I think about meaning. Like, what is the reason I’m telling this story? What is the point of the story? Because I don’t necessarily sit down and think, “What is the theme of the story?” But I do absolutely sit down and think, “What is the point of the story I’m trying to tell? What am I hoping to achieve?”

[Dan] Well, in line with that, I will often ask myself what are the questions I am asking.

[Victoria] Absolutely.

[Dan] With this piece.

[Brandon] For me, it’s often, those friction points between characters… When I have two characters approaching an idea from different directions, theme just grows very naturally out of that for me.

[Brandon] One of the other questions we have here is can we talk more about how promises at the beginning of a story and theme tie together, with specific examples. I’ll talk about one to give you guys some time to think, because early in my career, before I was published, when I was writing books, I wasn’t thinking about theme at all. It’s something I started to think about during one of those level up moments. As I had done more and more books, I said, well, the books should be about something. Not necessarily a moral, but the characters are passionate about things. The first Mistborn novel, I wanted to write a story about a character who joins a thieving crew and goes on this big mission. When I was first writing her first chapter, and I often write my way into characters, the first experience I had her being very competent, Artful Dodger style, that was going to be very fun to write, and it just did not work at all. Looking back, it’s because that personality didn’t match the theme I was actually exploring with the other characters, which is, is it worth continuing to love and to trust even though it might be painful later on. Because I had a very important character whose loved one had betrayed him, and he had been hurt by that, but then had continued on letting people into his circle, into his heart. She had had the same experience and she does not… Like, her response is to close that off. So I built the theme around this. A lot of the ideas that I used were things such as her standing in the foyer looking in at everybody having fun at dinner where the light is on and bright and she’s in the dark and she’s like, “I can’t go in there because that is pain that is being hidden by the light.” These sorts of themes really grew out of these two characters talking to each other.

[Victoria] So I love this… Because the word promises was in this question. I was thinking about, again, how much I hate the word theme. But what I…


[Victoria] Was thinking about is the idea of where theme meets promise. I do something similar with my characters in that I build for them a mantra out of what we think they want, what they think they want. Then, one of my goals over the course of the story, in actualizing the theme, is to make my character break their mantra. So it’s the difference between what a character wants their mantra to be, what they want their theme to be, and what the story actually needs their theme to be. So I think that this idea of promises, we fulfill the promises of the theme by figuring out the discomfort for our characters, how do we go from distrust to trust, how do we get from solitary to communal, how do we get from one thing to the other. So, while theme feels retrospective, the building of promises and of mantras and of ideas is very much… Is essential to the process of the characters in the story.

[Dan] Yeah. I think the… The promise that you set up at the beginning really is the foundation of the arc that they’re going to go through. So, in my middle grade series, the second book, Dragon Planet, I sat down and I outlined that whole thing and I had this fun adventure story in space for little kids. I’m like, “This is going to be great.” Then realized, “No. I need to figure out what this is about. What’s actually going on? What is the story really about?” And decided, well, it’s going to be about this little kid proving himself to his father. All of a sudden, it’s a story instead of just a connection of things. That means that the promise at the beginning is I need to show him not really… His father treats him like a little kid, his father doesn’t treat him like the scientist he thinks himself to be. That’s the promise that the book is going to eventually tie that arc off.

[Howard] The word theme… Yeah, it’s problem… We’re terrified of it. Because it was used to bludgeon us into submission…


[Howard] In English classes. I’ve done this marketing presentation before, and I think it may be something that’s coming in a sense later this year. In marketing, there is the concept of message. I want to go to the theme that Dan stated for us earlier, love makes fools of us all. Love makes fools of us all is a message which you can express by saying, “Love makes fools of us all.” You can then, if you’re writing an essay about it, to back that up, tell us a story about love making fools of multiple people. If you then remove the statement from the top, the story still explains that. But now you haven’t overtly stated the message. In marketing, there are messages… If you watch commercials, the message from a soda pop company is if you drink this, you will be more attractive to members of the opposite sex. That is a statement, that is a message that would be patently absurd to put in the commercial. But when you look at the story of the commercial, that is absolutely the message. I like to think about theme in this way. Because I have a marketing background and I’m evil.


[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week.

[Victoria] All right.

[Brandon] Which is actually Victoria’s.

[Victoria] Yeah. So, my book of the week is my book, A Darker Shade of Magic, which is the beginning of the Shades of Magic series. In effect, it’s a fantasy story about a young magician with the ability to travel between alternate worlds. Officially, as a messenger, unofficially, as a smuggler. He comes into possession of something he absolutely should not have, and before he can get rid of it, he gets his pocket picked by a cross-dressing thief named Delilah Bard. Everything goes terribly, terribly wrong from there.

[Howard] This is A Darker Shade of Magic by…

[Victoria] V. E. Schwab.

[Howard] V. E. Schwab.

[Victoria] The professional name.

[Brandon] Awesome.

[Howard] Well, Victoria Schwab is also a professional name.

[Victoria] Yeah. Victoria Schwab is my…

[Howard] Just different markets.

[Victoria] Professional name for children and teens. If you’re looking for me in any of the adult sections of the store, you’re going to want to use the initials.

[Brandon] So, we are… We have been asked, after talking about all of this, is there a way to do to much of this? To insert too much subtext, to overdo our themes? You’re all nodding.

[Victoria] I mean, let’s come back to Howard’s example of the commercial and the soda pop. I’m not sure that themes should be things that beat you over the head even if you take away the statements and you finish the book. I’m not sure… Like, I don’t know, maybe it’s a personal preference, but I think it’s something which requires a little bit of introspection, something which should not be… Should not be completely obvious. I found out recently that Into the Spider-Verse movie was meant as a coming out narrative. Was meant as a young boy trying to explain to his father that he was gay. Now that is a subtext. That is a theme that you do not have to get in order to enjoy the story, but that adds a richer layer to it when you do. I think of theme the same way. I’m not sure I should be able to put down a book and immediately tell you in pat sentence what the theme was.

[Dan] Yeah. You can tell when you’ve read something that beats you over the head, because you’re like, “Oh, this author was on a soapbox.” Right? You see this a lot with… I’m not going to name any names, although like for just leapt into mind. So let me rephrase. When you read something and you’re like, “Oh, this was making a clear political statement or a clear religious statement or this author was clearly trying to convince me that X and Y thing,” that’s because you have hit the theme way too hard. You weren’t telling a story, you were just banging a gong the whole time.

[Brandon] Now, I’m going to say there is room for that type of storytelling.

[Dan] There is, and there’s an audience for it.

[Brandon] It’s not necessarily flawed, if this is what the author wants to do. Some writers…

[Howard] Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle is not a comfortable read, and the theme is a little heavy-handed, but that was a pretty important book that we needed when it came out.

[Brandon] There are a lot of stories that do that. Most writers that I know, that’s not the type of story they want to tell. If that’s the type of story you want to tell, great. You can hit it a little harder and do what you want to do. For most of us, we want the theme to develop naturally out of what we’re building, the story we’re telling. We want you to get done with the book and say, “Huh. That was really interesting. Let me think about what that means to me.” People can pull different themes out of them.

[Victoria] I also do want to add the caveat that that is a revision thing as well. That if… You should not be scared if you feel like you’re hitting themes too hard in a first draft. One of the things that we do is both cull and refine as we revise a story.

[Brandon] Absolutely.

[Howard] I have a spreadsheet of Schlock Mercenary plot maps and org charts so that I can tell who the characters are and what the plots are. One of the columns for book 19 is themes. There’s one, two, three, four, five… Six… Six or seven things in here under theme. The question, is it possible to do too much, we’ve already said yes. How do you know? Where do you draw the line? For me, as I was filling these cells in, one of the cells, which is the one that led to the title of the book… The cell is titled “rank is a function of firepower.” Then I describe, this is shown with characters who are in power over other characters, it’s shown through the fighting, it’s shown through a whole lot of things. Applies to every plot line in the book. That one was easy. But then I scrolled back up through the others and realized these aren’t themes. These are maybe turning points, these are smaller messages, I don’t need to hit these as hard. What’s funny is I discovered as I was searching through this spreadsheet while we’re here recording, I looked at all these entries and thought, “Wow. I did not try to get all that in there, did I?” Because it would’ve been too much. I guess, subconsciously, I figured it out, or maybe I just looked at it and got lazy.

[Brandon] As we’re talking about this… We’re almost out of time. One thing I wanted to mention is if this intimidates you, if you’re really frightened by this idea, I do think a parallel or similar skill is foreshadowing. We don’t have time to talk about it this podcast. We’ve talked about it in a bunch of others. If you practice foreshadowing and learn to get subtle with your foreshadowing about coming events, and learn to get a feel for how readers are picking up on your foreshadowing, I think that’s a similar skill that you can practice. Maybe it’s a little less intimidating.

[Brandon] We are out of time. Howard, you have some homework for us.

[Howard] I do. Take something that you’ve written which is complete but still in draft form. It can be a short story. It can be a novella, novelette, full novel, whatever. Write down three… Like a multiple-choice question. What are the three possible themes for this thing that you’ve written? All three answers can be right, two of the answers can be obviously wrong, whatever. You’re making a multiple-choice test. Now go to your friend and don’t give them that test. Have them… I say friend. Beta reader. Those aren’t friends.


[Howard] Those are frenemies. Have them read what you’ve… Read the thing that you’ve written, and tell you what they think the theme is. That’s the first part of the exercise. Second part, give them the multiple-choice test and see if they’re willing to circle any of the things that you said the theme are. When you are done, you will have sufficient information to go back and revise based on information you now have.

[Brandon] Thank you very much. That’s good homework. You guys are out of excuses. Now go write.