From Sarah, With Joy

*Poet * Author * Wanderluster*

Monday, December 16, 2013

Know Your Theme

When I was a student Ron Carlson came and gave a lecture and I got to go to a question and answer gig afterwards. As he was answering questions, he talked about how a lot of MFA students are super worried about not being too didactic or obvious about their message. They focus on being subtle. But he said something that surprised me. He said to throw subtlety out the window.

It hasn't been till more recently, though, that I've begun to understand a little what he's talking about, and how it applies.

See, I am definitely one of those writers who is hyper-concerned about being too obvious with their message. I love it when the text is rich enough to provide multiple meanings and solutions, and lends itself to deep analysis. Even more than that, I hate it when books or movies get into, like, children's talk show host mode and almost sound like, "And from this story, children, we learn that..." Or when a show (*ahem* Glee *ahem*) starts pushing their own agenda so hard you just feel like you're getting stuff shoved down your throat whether or not you agree with them.

So yeah, I don't like didactic or agenda-pushing stories. I like it when a story is ambiguous enough that I can sort of glean my own meaning from it. However, I've gotten feedback on a few things where people have told me that they're not sure what I'm trying to say, or what they're supposed to take from the story. I tell them, "I'm not trying to say anything, I want the reader to be able to take their own meaning."

And I think that's the problem. The point of writing is to say something, something important, something so important to you that you want to shout it to the world. I've realized, I feel that way about everything I write but sometimes I'm so scared of offending people or not connecting with people that I end up becoming too vague and obtuse and not connecting with anyone. I've had readers tell me to just come out and say what I want to say, that a reader really does need to know where the author is coming from. It's better to have a reader disagree with you than not know what you're trying to say in the first place.

I think the key is how you handle it. We are all writers because there is something we want the world to understand. We have a theme, a message, in each of our stories and we have to own it. We just need to be very, very aware of how complex issues and people are, and aware of the people who disagree with us and why they disagree with us, and acknowledge it with understanding and compassion. As long as you don't portray your theme in the light of everyone who disagrees with me in the slightest is a stupid, naive, misinformed, backward and brainwashed idiot (again, are you listening Glee?), you should be fine :)

Example time. Have you all seen Captain Phillips, the latest Tom Hanks movie? So, with a theme you have to make a statement, say that something is good and something else is bad, right? And do that with compassion and understanding and acknowledgement of complexity. Captain Phillips does this brilliantly. Yes, its a battle of sea-men versus pirates, but this movie acknowledges the humanity of the pirates, and the really complicated and hard things they themselves are dealing with. It acknowledges complexity and lets you leave the theater with much more than just, "pirates are scary and bad, huh?" It makes you think. And besides, its just a really gripping story and Tom Hanks is freaking genius, obviously.

Because being heard, getting our message out,  that's why writing is important. The world is a better place when all our voices are heard, which is why we became writers. And if we can speak with strength and determination as well as understanding and compassion, the complex people on all sides of complicated issues can benefit.

Do you agree? Have you read books/seen movies where the theme is either too vague or too exclusive?

Sarah Allen

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  1. Some stories do tend to wander aimlessly. I don't like it when music does that either.
    I think theme came through strongest in my latest book, although I really wasn't even trying

  2. That makes perfect sense. I stopped watching Law and Order because I felt they were using their series to get certain laws passed.

    Good post!

    Hugs and chocolate!

  3. I disagree somewhat. I don't believe that writing needs to say anything at all. It typically has the capacity to, but the reason I write what I write is to try to make people feel. Mainstream English education is heavily skewed toward literary writing, in which theme is usually considered "important." In literary fiction, there's often a definitive answer being put forth. Speculative fiction tends to give the reader all the tools (s)he needs to ponder something without bias. Sometimes it asks theoretical questions, such as "is it okay to exterminate non-human sentient species?". I've written both, but I lean heavily toward the latter.

  4. I love this post! I think a book that does a really good job of driving it's theme home the right way is The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. He gets all his points across, but in the perfect John Green way. ;) I love how writing gives everyone a voice.

  5. first, i would say you will have to over come the worry about offending people...i say that because i used to feel the same...and i like it when a story can be universal or allow a reader to find their own truth within it...

  6. I'm not a fan of those types of themes. To me, if a theme seems to be vague/exclusive, it means that the writer is talking down to the reader, in that you're not astute enough to read my story.

  7. It is a tough balance, because some people won't get your message and others feel like you're whacking them over the head with it. And you have to figure out which way to go.

    I don't mind a little help. I was one of those kids who struggled with this stuff in English class.

  8. Thanks for visiting Sarah and if you like ambiguous you'll love my book Penniless Hearts.

  9. This is really interesting. I'd always heard you should be subtle and I felt, like you, that I should let the reader make their own message, but this is really interesting. There definitely has to e a balance.

  10. Hi Sarah. I understand the fear of being yourself and worrying about what others think. Blogging has been a tremendous release (for me) in that regard, but I constantly fight slipping back into what I call "cautious writing." Finding a theme requires a knowledge of one's self and that's a whole different topic. I'm learning...slowly learning to delve a little deeper. I love the understanding and compassion you mention that can be gained when different voices come together. You have just elevated my view of blogging and bloggers in general!
    Also, interesting take on Glee.The agenda-driven writing really hits one full in the face, doesn't it? Although I still watch it for the amazing talent.Shells–Tales–Sails

  11. Nothing turns me off as a reader as having a theme pushed down your throat. Kids see right through that, too.

    The theme should develop right along with the story, so that it's only at the end that you recognize -- wow, this was the theme all along.

    Or maybe I just think that because I never discover the theme of my books until I finish the first draft -- LOL!

  12. Yes, I have and I try to avoid that with my writing. It is a tricky balance, that's for sure, and I think it gets easier as we go. Great food for thought, thank you! :)


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