Use themes like a compass
Strong themes are a serial writer's best friend
We’re nearly at the end of 2021. Another deeply odd year, to put it mildly. If 2020 was a year on pause, 2021 has been a year of janky buffering, playing a few seconds before getting stuck again on the loading wheel of doom. I hope everyone reading this is getting whatever support they need to keep on going through these strange times.
Today I’m writing about themes. As a young writer, back when I was still in high school, it took me a long while to figure out why my stories never really felt as engaging as I expected. They had plots and characters, albeit rather rudimentary ones, but they were evidently missing something. That’s what today’s newsletter is all about.
MEANWHILE: it’s not too late to grab yourself some bonus Christmas/New Year reading in the form of the Strange Tales book giveaway which I’m taking part in with a bunch of other indie authors. You can grab a copy of my novel No Adults Allowed as long as you pop along before the end of the month.
In other news, I’ve now started unlocking chapters of Tales from the Triverse once the early access period has passed. That means as of right everyone can read from the start all the way through to chapter 8, including the bonus chapters. If you want to read ahead and support the writing of the book you can become an early access subscriber. Here’s a link to chapter 1:
If this is the first you’ve heard of it: it’s a crime drama in which detectives have to solve cases involving inter-dimensional wrong-doing. It’s a crime/sci-fi/fantasy mash-up and is a lot of fun to write. That usually means it is fun to read, too!
OK, on with the show.
A risk of the live-writing style of serialisation is that you can find yourself lost in your own story, having taken a wrong turning down a blind alley with no understanding of how to get back to the main path. This can happen during any writing, but with serialisation it can be awkwardly public.
Equally, if a good idea occurs to you halfway through serialising a story, how do you judge whether it is worth pursuing? How can you know whether it’s a risk worth taking, to change course mid-flow? This was something I used to struggle with, never knowing how to prioritise different strands of the story or how long to spend on particular elements of the book. A lot of this uncertainty, it turned out, was because I focused unduly on plot.
Non-writers put a lot of emphasis on plot. When I was a child I recall it being talked about a lot at school, too. What happens in the story? would be the primary question. When people ask “what’s it about?”, they think they are inquiring after the plot. People excitedly talk about books and movies with amazing plot twists, as if that was what made them good. Thus, I’d obsess over plot details, always worried that mine were too simplistic. Once I started writing online serials this approach didn’t really work, as focusing in on plot as the main driving force and guide for the narrative felt too restrictive and inevitably led to characters behaving oddly so as to not upset The Master Plot.
Writing fiction in general clicked for me at the same time I moved away from obsessing over plot and instead focused in on theme. Figuring out your themes up front, before you start writing a single word of the manuscript, is like having a compass (or Google Maps…) when you go on a long walk. Themes (or a compass, or Google Maps) allow you to wander off the main path occasionally, but without getting lost. You still know exactly where you are, and how to get back. It enables you to explore and wander, safe in the knowledge that you know what you’re doing. You’ll still get to your destination, it just might be via an unexpected route.
If you’re unsure about whether to investigate a new sub-plot, or introduce a new character, you can run a check using your themes. Does the sub-plot help you to dive deeper into the themes of the story? Or is it an indulgence that distracts from them? Will the new character provide an additional perspective with which to examine the themes? If the answer is yes, you can dive in, confident that you’re making the right decision. If the new idea doesn’t connect with your story’s themes, then it might be best to park them for the moment. Save them for another time, or even another tale.
Themes help you to understand the point of your book. A compelling story goes a long way by itself, and engaging characters can do a lot of heavy lifting. But themes are what give your story a reason to exist, beyond simply retelling a sequence of related events. Themes provide the context for your fiction that help readers connect it to their own lives and to the real world. When the ending of your book resonates with the themes of the book, that is when it becomes memorable and satisfying for the reader - and not just the last in a series of things that happened.
In any given book, I tend to have a couple of primary themes that everything revolves around, with a collection of secondary themes orbiting around the edges. The primary themes are the ones that drive the story, which all the characters are in some way exposing through their actions, and which the plot is designed to explore. The secondary themes are usually derived from the primaries, even if the connection is tangential.
When I was designing Tales from the Triverse a big part of the work was defining its themes. Early in the process I came up with a little list which looked like this:
Legacy & consequence
The specific priority order of those themes is continually shifting as the story comes into focus, but having them all written down inside a ‘Themes’ document in Scrivener I find helpful for keeping me on track. As I create characters and finesse the plot, I can keep those themes in the back of my mind to make sure that any addition to the story is serving at least one of them. Ideally more than one.
Note also that I’m not defining a particular stance on these themes. These are the aspects I want to explore with the story, but how exactly I do that is still very much open for discovery. Characters will differ in their attitudes towards these themes, with some characters very much disagreeing with my personal stance. It’s notable that while the plot of Tales from the Triverse has changed substantially during its development, those core themes have remained unchanged.
The point isn’t to feel shackled to your themes. Use them to free your imagination and creativity, safe in the knowledge that you know where you’re going and what the overall point of your story is. Feel emboldened to explore the fringes of your story, knowing that you won’t get lost or overly distracted. Themes are a guide and an aid, and should be treated as such.
Thanks for reading. I’ll hopefully be back with a new chapter of Triverse on Christmas Eve.