Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Revising the Novel - Back to Theme

Let's get back to our earlier conversation about theme.

There's an excellent discussion of theme in Steven King's book, On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft, which I would recommend to anyone who's interested in writing novels. Considering that these are the words of one of the best-selling writers of all time, it's certainly worth paying attention to what he has to say. His take on theme is very similar to mine, or should I say, my take is very similar to his (as I'm certain his views on this topic came first.)

First of all, theme doesn't have to be big, overblown deal, and in fact, it shouldn't. To sit down and write a book about "X" theme, because you really want to make a moral or philosophical statement is usually a set-up for failure. In the days past, readers may have had patience for a dissertation on what the authors moral views of a subject were or their grand view on life, but not today. With the short-attention spans we're confronted with, any preaching you do as a writer is probably going to be all the excuse the reader needs to put the book down. No, in today's multi-media age, all that really matters is the story. Particularly with thrillers. Keep it engaging, keep it exciting and keep it moving.

But that doesn't mean your book may not make a grander statement than a simple shoot-em-up. In fact, the best thrillers will make a statement, or a leftover lingering thought, something to make the reader go "Hmmmm, so that's what this is about." The important thing is that the theme shouldn't (can't) overpower the story. Remember, story always comes first.

I didn't set out with a deliberate theme when I started my novel. I wanted to tell a story, based in science and medicine, about an experiment that goes horribly wrong and its consequences for my hero. As it turns out, this is the approach Stephen King recommends as well. Write your book, tell your story, then look back and see what your story is really about. It's probably not about the big gunfight, or in Stephen's case, the vampires haunting the New England town, it's about the people. And usually some very specific aspect of the people.

With this in mind, as I set out to follow the Ten-Point Strategy to revise my novel, I started thinking about what deeper story my book told. At first I thought it was a "David vs Goliath" type of story, but after my discussion with Robert Dugoni, I began to realize that it was something very different, and in truth, much more satisfying.

More on that next time.

Pick up Stephen King's On Writing here: On Writing

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