Saturday, June 21, 2008

Revising the Novel - Theme to Story

What comes first, the theme or the story?

That's a very fundamental question, and I'm sure many of you have your own opinions on this. We can follow this up with a later question, what comes first, character or plot? But for now will stick to one concept. One theme if you will.

In my hands, story came first. I had an idea of a research project, a twist on current science that I wanted to explore. Idea led to plot, plot led to characters, characters led to story, story led to theme. It was only after I'd finished the novel, and gone through a couple of revisions that the main theme of forgiveness became apparent. At first, it was just a story about a pretty ambitious guy driven to do his research. It was only after the story evolved, that my hero kept going back, despite horrible odds, that it began to tick in my brain as to why. Why would someone continue to fight and fight, when the whole world is against him, when his whole life has collapsed? The underlying motivation had to be more than just the satisfaction of finishing the project, or money or fame. It had to be a reason deeply wrapped into the fabric of who he is.

In my story, it was his need for forgiveness, for himself and for his family.

Once I saw that, suddenly the story clicked. And that's the value of theme. Once you know your theme, then the story takes on the light of relevance. Suddenly, you can see scenes that contradict your theme, and they go. New scenes get added that enhance the theme, set it up, draw it out.

For me, the whole book changed. It was no longer a standard medial thriller, good guy fighting against bad guy for his project that meant, oh so much for the world. It was now a story about one man and his quest to move beyond his past, find peace and find meaning in his life.

Now, don't get me wrong. It's a medial thriller. I got blood and guts and bodies and car chases and murder, even poison, but don't you think having all that action surrounding a story that is so deeply personal makes it more interesting?

Stephen King says on theme that if you start with the theme, the book will fail. You must start with story. I suppose he knows. Last I checked he's sold more books than me (So far. Look behind you Stephen, I'm coming up fast) And in my opinion, Stephen King should be placed on the list of the greatest 20-21st century writers. Not because his books sell or are made into movies, but because most of his books move beyond the story, deeply into theme, and this makes them memorable. (not to mention that he's one of the great character writers of all time). We tend to think of King as the writer of Cujo, or Christine or Pet Semetary but let's not forget, he's also the writer of The Shawshank Redemption, Stand by Me, and The Green Mile. This man know's theme.

But even many of his horror books really delve into deeper topics, like The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Stand, even Carrie.

Still, I don't know if I entirely agree with his thought. Certainly, it is the way I wrote my book, story first then theme, but that doesn't mean its the only way. I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this, particularly the thoughts of the Plot Whisperer. I believe that if the theme is compelling enough for you, you can write a successful book, even in this day and age. But you must quickly move beyond theme into rich character, plot and story. Theme should be subtle, not omnipresent. A tickling under the skin, not a flesh wound.

Your thoughts?

1 comment:

Beth said...

Engaging post. Really enjoyed it.
Theme is so hard to nail down, and I think I agree with you more than that theme comes to different writers in different ways at different times.

I have no doubt that some writers can get hooked on a theme, work backwards and create the story scenes to fit with the theme, plot and characters, but for me, theme comes at the culmination of a project like you. The fascination of fiction writing is that even though we *think* we know the story in our heads, we never *really* know the story until it's out on paper.

I'd love to hear Martha's thoughts on this as well!