Key Points: If plot is the skeleton of your story, theme is the soul you stick inside it. Them is what the story is about. Theme may grow out of characters, out of their conflicts. Theme may direct your research. Don’t let theme overshadow your story and characters.
[Brandon] And we actually got that right. In a previous podcast, we had mentioned theme and Howard said, “Uh, let’s talk about that later.”
[Howard] Can of worms.
[Brandon] This is the later. Let’s talk about theme. Dan, can you define theme for us? You have an English degree.
[Dan] Yes, I do. And now you’re making me use it, which no one else has done ever since I graduated.
[Brandon] I think that’s in the charter of an English degree.
[Dan] Theme, at its most basic, is what something is about. The way that a plot is kind of the skeleton that you hang over something, theme is like the…
[Brandon] the soul…
[Dan] The soul that you stick inside it.
[Brandon] What the story means?
[Brandon] A great example of this… you could say that the theme of the Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is repentance, redemption and Christian symbolism…
[Brandon] Yes. Sacrifice. There’s a theme in that.
[Howard] So the theme of Prince Caspian is faith.
[Howard] All right. Hey, I can do this.
[Brandon] So the theme of the Hobbit is the little guy can do it. That sort of thing. I [garbled — it could be one of the little themes?]
[Howard] It’s also the little engine that could.
[Brandon] Well, it’s a popular theme. There’s a paper in there somewhere.
[Dan] Coming soon to a theater near you…
[Brandon] The little hobbit that could.
[Howard] I think I can, I think I can.
[Brandon] So why do we talk about theme? Well, if you take any English class above the basic level ones, you’ll spend a lot of time talking about theme. What does this story mean? What did the author intend, what did the author not intend? This is a podcast for writers. So the question is, should you as a writer be thinking about theme? And if so, how much should you be thinking about it? How much do you, pod casters, let theme focus what you write? Let’s just start with, do you think about theme?
[Howard] I’m going to put a stake in the ground and I’m going to say, “No, you don’t need to think about theme.” And I’m saying that because that allows me to justify my own behavior.
[Brandon] Okay. Justify your behavior. Go for it.
[Howard] I don’t think about theme. I try to write interesting stories that will be funny. Yes, I’m writing satire, and sometimes it’s political satire and sometimes it’s religious satire. And I suppose there are themes to be found there. But I enjoy letting the reader decipher that theme without me telling them where they are supposed to go.
[Brandon] Okay. Dan, theme. I think theme is stronger in your books than it is in either my stories or Howard’s. Do you think about that theme ahead of time?
[Dan] To some degree, yes, I do. Part of that is the genre, because as we talked about in our horror podcast, horror tends to be a moral genre anyway. But for me… I always think about my books on at least three levels. This book is about a kid who is a serial killer who’s fighting demons. It’s also about this, and down at its core, it’s about something else. But I’m very careful not to let those deeper ones get too big for their britches. I don’t want them to be so blatant that people will go, “Oh come on, stop writing this fable and just tell me a story.” If it’s in there, and you can find it, wonderful. I’m delighted. I look forward to talking with readers about the themes they have found in my stories. But I don’t want them to overpower the story.
[Brandon] I would say, answering my own question, for me, I do think about theme, but I think about it as I’m writing the book, not as I prepare the book, generally. Theme for me comes out as theme focused on a character. What a character is caring about will become an overarching motivation for them, then just as you write, connections will happen, and you will place that character in situations where their theme can manifest.
[Howard] That is inherently thematic.
[Brandon] And I do do it a little bit consciously. In book 2 of Mistborn, we’ve got a character who’s struggling to become a king, and therefore the theme of what does it mean to be a leader and what are the costs of being a leader and what are the costs of idealism became very important to me as a writer when I was writing that because they were so important to the character. But I didn’t actually sit down and say I want to write a book about the importance of this.
[Howard] Now let me ask you a follow-up question there. So we’re talking about… are we allowed to say that we are talking about Eland?
[Howard] Good. The statute of limitations has passed. So, Eland is trying to be a good king. In sitting down to write that, you’ve decided that that’s one of your book’s themes.
[Brandon] I decided that’s a character conflict.
[Howard] No, but… it’s a character conflict, and so it’s thematic to that character, it’s contained in your book — it’s one of your book’s themes. Do you then… does that change your behavior such that you sit down and start researching material on that theme, to find out, “Well, gosh, what does make a good king?” And go to Hammurabi and Isaiah and…
[Brandon] I do sometimes. I’m an armchair philosopher, taken a lot of philosophy classes when I was an undergraduate. It’s fascinating to me. I think the best themes — this is personal — I think the best themes are ones that are explored from all sides.
[Howard] No strawman.
[Brandon] No strawman and beyond that no answers. I’m really not trying to give answers. Sometimes I do because the characters will make decisions. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m agreeing with that decision, but it will look like that to anyone who reads. It’s impossible to not assume that that’s…
[Howard] Yeah, the character arrives at an answer, so at a superficial level, someone could read the book and say, “Oh well, this is the answer” when in fact the answer was not perfect.
[Dan] Let’s put Brandon further on the spot.
[Dan] You say you kind of develop that theme out of Eland’s character. You read the third book, that theme is everywhere. There’s Yomen, there’s Spook, there’s Sazid, there’s… everyone is dealing with that. At what point did that become a book theme instead of a character theme?
[Brandon] Um. Boy. I would say… when I decided to put other characters… it was… I dealt with it in book 2, and it was that desire I had to approach it from all sides rather than just showing one side. And so in this case, I had Yomen as a character who is kind of opposed to Eland approaching the theme from a different direction and then we had Spook approaching it from a slightly different direction and going through different experiences. I think that it was just my desire when I wrote… often when I write a book that will come up with these great ideas and say, “Wow, this is awesome. I need to explore this more.” And then you’ll see me reacting to my own books with other books. Warbreaker is a reaction to Elantris in a lot of ways. What is it like to become… to be a person who is given the power of a God? I didn’t really get into it in Elantris because the people don’t have the power of the gods, they have lost the power of the gods. So, hence, suddenly I write Warbreaker dealing with the same theme but from a different tack. That happens to me a lot.
[Brandon] Let’s ask you guys a question then. One of my favorite quotes on theme ever is by Oscar Wilde. I’m not quoting this directly, but it’s from the foreword to The Picture of Dorian Gray where he says art must be useless to be art, if it’s trying to do anything else, it stops being art and it starts doing what it’s trying to do. So in order to create something that is pure art, it… pure art is enjoyed only for its aesthetic artistic value. But if you’ve read The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s a very didactic story. It’s obviously dealing with this powerful theme of hedonism and what it does to a person or Dorian Gray ends up being destroyed by his hedonistic lifestyle in the same way that Oscar Wilde was being destroyed by his own hedonistic lifestyle. It was probably the most poignant book of his career.
[Dan] Spoiler Warning!
[Brandon] The statute of limitations… 100 years. If it’s in the public domain, then there is no… so the question I have for you is, should fiction mean something? Should it?
[Howard] I’m going to rephrase the question.
[Dan] That’s cheating.
[Howard] Can fiction mean nothing? And I don’t think it can.
[Dan] You haven’t read James Joyce.
[Howard] I think many readers who sits down with James Joyce or with Oscar Wilde or with Schlock Mercenary… see what I did there?
[Howard] is going to sit down and is going to put their own… draw their own meaning. Now with The Picture of Dorian Gray, whatever he said at the beginning of that book, I have to think the man was not a complete idiot, and knew he was contradicting…
[Brandon] Oscar Wilde is famous for contradicting himself. That’s one of the things he loved to do.
[Howard] And I’m sure he did it in order to force you to quest a little bit deeper into the book for meaning.
[Brandon] But there is something to be said for creating art for pure aesthetic value. Looking at a picture and not saying what was the artist trying to convey… just look at it and say, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” And I think that might be what he was trying to say, that art should at some point just say, “Wow, that’s beautiful” and that’s the point.
[Howard] So it has to work independent of theme. I’m fine with that. I love the fact that a good story works without me sitting down and saying, “Oh, wait a minute, this is — author’s message, author’s message.” But I also love being able to sit down with a book a second time and try to learn something, not necessarily about the author, but about human nature. You know the works of… when I read Orson Scott Card, the way he writes children, the way he writes most of his characters, you read those characters and you learn things about people. I like that. And I think you can learn that from all kinds of books.
[Dan] You called out my English degree earlier, so we’re going to dust it off and bring up the concept of the readerly and writerly. Which are weird English words that you only care about while you’re in a class. Basically if a text or a story is readerly, that means that the reader is required to put some of themself into it. That’s exactly what Howard was talking about earlier, with… can something be completely meaningless. No, because no matter what it says there, you’re bringing all of your own experiences to it, you’re bringing all of your own interests and desires and puzzles…
[Howard] What you’re saying is, not only did I not have a new idea, my idea is so old that your degree can sum it up in one stinking word.
[Brandon] No, that means you’re poignant.
[Dan] That means that you’re…
[Brandon] Pithy. Pithy. No, wait a minute. He’s pithy, you’re not.
[Howard] Exactly. Brevity is the soul of wit, mind you.
[Brandon] Can theme ruin the book for you?
[Howard] Oh, yeah.
[Dan] If it’s too hard.
[Howard] If the theme… if you, with Eland had been doing what you are doing, and then had one of the characters come out and soliloquy whatever and talk about what does it really mean to be a good leader and give us a couple paragraphs on that, that would have ruined it.
[Brandon] Goodkind takes a lot of flak for doing this. Some people really love it, some people hate it. Dan, what’s your opinion?
[Dan] This is an interesting question, especially for genre fiction. Because science fiction in large part got its start as a highly thematic, didactic kind of genre. We talked about that before.
[Howard] Technology can save us.
[Brandon] Or destroy us.
[Dan] Yeah. And a lot of those old stories by the old masters have really kind of clear morals at the end.
[Brandon] Starship Troopers. What is Starship Troopers? It’s a highly thematic book, but we still enjoy it.
[Dan] Those can work very well, but at the same time, I’ve read others, especially during the time we were working on the leading edge…
[Dan] For example, there was one that was just devoutly antisocialist. It was this science-fiction story taking place on some spaceship and they encountered some aliens that had like a hive mind or whatever and at the end, one of the characters stood up and gave a whole diatribe against their whole civilization because it had socialist principles behind it. And that’s taking it a little too far.
[Brandon] Okay. Let’s take this back again to the writers. When you are writing, should you be trying to be didactic? Or is there really no answer to that? Is it do what you want to do and see what happens?
[Howard] If you write well enough to pull off the didacticisms — is that a word?
[Brandon] Yeah. I mentioned [garbled] Brown but he was wildly successful despite the fact that I didn’t like the story because of the theme punching me in the face every five minutes.
[Howard] A good author can deliver the theme in such a way that most readers are going to read that as just another part of the story and… guys with English degrees may say, “Ah, you’re spoonfeeding me, I hate this.” But a good writer can do it well I think a bad writer or a mediocre writer can take a ham-handed approach and completely destroy their work.
[Dan] You look at something like Toy Story Two that my children enjoy completely wonderfully on one level but adults can enjoy just as much on three or four other levels underneath the kids aren’t even aware of. If you write it well, then any audience can look at it and get something out of it.
[Brandon] Okay. I’m actually changing my opinion just a little bit as I think about this and when we talk about this podcast. I used to say, “Don’t even think about it. Don’t try to put theme in your story.”
[Howard] What did we just accomplish, Dan?
[Dan] This is the first time we’ve ever been the right ones.
[Howard] Knuckles across the table. Go ahead Brandon.
[Brandon] Thank you, Howard. I often say, “Don’t try to make your writing mean anything.” But as I consider it, the best stories do mean something, and some of that has to be conscious. They didn’t make Toy Story Two without knowing they were putting in this theme of growing up and abandoning childhood and kind of the regret that’s involved in that. And so I do think it’s something you need to think about. But I think the answer is what Howard said, which is… or no, it’s what you said Dan — don’t let it overshadow.
[Brandon] Don’t let it overshadow the story and the characters. But it can add another level. It can make a good story great, or a great story timeless, if you can come up with a really good theme that matches the characters.
[Howard] I think it can also help you construct your story. If you’re halfway through and you realize, “Wow, I’ve got a theme running here and I really need to let this character finish exploring it.” If you don’t let the character finish exploring it, you may have broken the structure of the book.
[Brandon] Okay. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. Join us next week when we stop being so philosophical and start talking about how to kill people.
[Brandon] Writing Prompt?
[Dan] I did the last one.
[Brandon] Write a story with no theme. Whatsoever. That means nothing. Howard said it’s not possible, prove him wrong.
[Howard] That’s good. Give us a short story that’s meaningless. What have we wrought?