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Making a story thematically rich
As a kid I always wondered why the stories I wrote felt flimsy and inconsequential. I had cool characters and fun plots, but they weren’t coming alive. It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that it was due to a lack of thematic richness.
A plot without themes is just a sequential list of events. It may as well be an actual bulleted summary and save everyone the time. Compelling characters will do a lot of the heavy lifting, but they still benefit from being anchored to a point.
The book is a road trip, of sorts, and the plot is relatively light. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world in which there are no living adults. Surviving children have formed communities and have no real memory of what came before. The ensemble cast travels south in search of answers, with various encounters along the way.
I wrote the book in 2020 and it was very much a response to real world events, historical, recent and on the horizon. Rather than it jumping from one topic to another, I was very deliberate with what I wanted to explore. Trying to fit everything into one book is unlikely to work, especially as I wanted it to be slim: I like having a trio of core themes, which ebb and flow and ideally support and illuminate one another.
The themes of the book were decided ahead of time. No Adults Allowed began life as a weekly serial, as with all my projects, before being compiled into its current ebook and paperback forms. Having its themes defined up front is critical to imbuing the serial with a sense of purpose. The themes are a nod and a wink from the writer to the reader; it’s me saying don’t worry, I’ve got a plan. This is about something, and is worth your time.
Content warning: This post contains opinions on politics and society and stuff. Maybe skip it if that alarms you. Although if you read my fiction or have been reading this newsletter for a while, there shouldn’t be any surprises!
There will be some minor spoilers in here. Read the book first if you’re worried. 🙂
In no particular order, then:
1. Parenting is really hard
My son was born in 2012. Before and since I’ve had to do a lot of upskilling in terms of being a parent. I suspect being a parent isn’t something you ever feel like you’ve figured out - it’s more like a series of realisations of what not to do.
There were certain aspects I wanted to try to get right, though. I wanted my son to have independence from the beginning, especially independence of opinion and thought. I wanted him to be media-savvy and understand the complexities of the internet, and that you can’t trust everything you see and hear. At the same time, I didn’t want that to tip over into paranoia and total distrust of everything. A simple application of the scientific method needed to be there from the start.
I wanted to support him and help him and be present, but not to the point of me being overwhelming, or removing his agency. I didn’t want to be an ever-present parent, making all of his decisions for him. And that’s the tricky bit, isn’t it? Parenting is a constant balancing act, weighing up multiple entirely contradictory ideas at the same time and trying to find a sensible route through the middle.
Above all, I didn’t want my son to grow up to be a misogynist arsehole. And that’s something that can’t be taken for granted: there are so many unpleasant influences circling the playground, with even 10 year olds latching onto sexist influencers, inane YouTube-promoted energy drinks, dubious political commentary and all sorts. Being a kid in the 2010s and 2020s is very different to the 80s and 90s when I was growing up, and the world is infinitely more advanced and progressive and welcoming, but there are still powerful people trying to turn back the clock and the media landscape is vastly more complex.
Point is, it’s complicated. No Adults Allowed, despite having no adults, was a way for me to explore those notions of responsibility and parenting. How would the slightly older kids adapt to the situation? There’s also an unknown force in the story that’s insulating the kids from danger, which was a way to poke at the idea of helicopter parenting: that most aggressive and intrusive form of parenting that refuses to permit any agency on the part of the child. The 1984 approach.
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2. Adults ruin everything
I’m not the first person to observe that adults have a lot to answer for. We have a habit of really messing up quite badly. The source of many of the world’s problems date back decades, centuries or even millennia: inherited hatreds and stereotypes and prejudices, handed down deliberately or unconsciously across generations.
So many of the current issues facing the world - climate destruction, the war in Ukraine, poverty and hunger around the globe, religious extremism, discrimination - have their roots going a long way back through history. Many of them are linked to resource scarcity, either current or in the past. Much of this is preserved by one generation handing their particular prejudices down to the next. Adults often have a wilful ignorance, of how media works, or how science works. They lack the craving for knowledge that you find in young children.
No Adults Allowed was a thought experiment: what would happen if we could, in one swift move, remove all adults from the planet while magically keeping young kids alive and well? What if the surviving children didn’t remember what had come before?
A blank slate, in other words. Something that can never happen, logistically or ethically, in the real world. With all those inherited biases and historical prejudices erased, what happens then? Do they re-emerge naturally? Do entirely new social issues develop? Or is everything lovely, so long as resources are plentiful?
A key reference text for No Adults Allowed is, of course, Lord of the Flies. William Golding’s novel embedded itself in my head when I read it (multiple times) at school. Stranded on an isolated island, a group of schoolboys have to fend for themselves. What starts as an exciting boys-own romp swiftly descends into madness and disturbing violence. I wanted to take the opposite angle: what if the absence of adults actually resulted in the kids being better people?
By 2020, when I wrote the book, it was glaringly apparent that multiple generations of adults had failed the planet. There was not going to be movement on environmental issues. In fact, adults were busy chopping down rainforests and extracting coal and oil while also nodding along at climate conferences. Political and social tensions were worsening. Awful prejudices were being deliberately perpetuated and deepened by people with ulterior motives and a nostalgic cruelty. War was still the one human constant. Adults could not be relied upon to create or maintain a peaceful world.
Young people, on the other hand, were putting in all the hard work. Making people aware of the climate crisis. Spearheading movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, driving issues into the mainstream and a new level of visibility. When old politicians and cynics rolled their eyes at Greta Thunberg’s latest speech or stunt, I saw hope for the future. It was too late to save the present, but there was a new generation of people, many of whom were too young even to vote, that meant my son might still have a functioning world in which to live. If we can just survive through the current generation of ineptitude without being overly distracted by the latest hijacked cultural terms.
That’s why No Adults Allowed is an optimistic book. It’s why it has that title. It’s an apology for the inaction of my parents’ generation and my own generation, and an acknowledgement that the sooner we pass the baton the better for the planet and all of us on it.
It’s that bit in The Lord of the Rings when all the supposed grown-ups in the room at the Council of Elrond are busy arguing, and the little hobbitrealises he has to be the one to complete the mission. And Aragorn, full of regret and shame, recognises that the time for shouty grown-up men has passed.
3. Algorithmic biases
This is the weird one. There had been talk about the bias inherent in algorithms for years, noting that Silicon Valley’s vaunted method of surfacing content and enhancing culture wasn’t as neutral as it was purported to be. We’d witnessed the effects of mass networking and algorithmically-pushed material in 2016’s politics. TikTok and its super-intense algorithm was kicking into high gear. Twitter was pinging people off down extremists rabbit holes. YouTube was forcing people into ideological warrens. Targeted advertising was ‘accidentally’ outing gay people, revealing pregnancies and more.We’d been slipping into a technological dystopia for twenty years, largely without realising.
Some of that ended up in No Adults Allowed. It’s about the creation of a flawed system, and how systems are always flawed. That you can’t engineer your way out of everything. Some issues, especially societal, are pernicious and chaotic and complex and require more nuance than an automated approach can provide. And, most of all, that any program created by humans is likely to inherit the flaws of those humans.
What makes all this a bit odd is that, writing in 2020, I had no idea we were on the cusp of the first real age of artificial intelligence. When I was writing about AI in No Adults Allowed I still thought of it as a largely science fictional concept, inevitable but at least a decade away - probably more. Two years later, MidJourney and ChatGPT appeared, their generative technologies upending just about everything.
It’s made this theme in No Adults Allowed even more relevant, if anything. From MidJourney’s difficulties rendering non-European facesto ChatGPT’s purported tendency to behave like a psychopath, to odd reports of US drone simulations resulting in the drone murdering its operator (which may or may not have happened), to the Hollywood strikes, the emergence of entirely realistic deep-fake tech (just in time for the UK and US elections, yay), we live in a rapidly evolving technological era that’s going to make the arrival of the internet in the 90s seem like a minor cultural event.
If there’s one thing that the blockchain, NFTs, crypto and now LLM AIs have shown us, it’s that the people behind these technologies tend to be the worst of us. I’m not referring to end users typing in prompts and getting interesting stuff out the other end (I know many of you use these systems in your creative practice!), but the people funding and developing the tech in the first place on a corporate level. The people looking to make a profit from the tech. Rather than using AI technologies to help people do their jobs, or even to eliminate wasteful middle-management and absurdly expensive CEOs, it’s being used to deliberately undermine workers and artists.It’s a cynical move, rather than an empowering one. Worst of all, the technology relies on a hidden group of underpaid staff wading through the absolute worst of humanity in order to ‘train’ the systems. Exploitation is baked in from the start, which doesn’t bode well for where it will end.
If any of this sounds intriguing, you can check out the book on your local Amazon:
Questions, not answers
The core themes continually intersect, reacting off each other through the story. Their presence is what kept the writing interesting for me, giving the whole thing intent and a real trajectory. I wasn’t just detailing a sequence of events, from start to finish.
Each scene, each chapter, every conversation between characters and action they take, resonates with the core themes in some way. The themes give the plot and characters purpose, and in turn the characters serve to illuminate the themes, turning them over one way and another.
Of course, there’s an inherent risk to having clear themes in a story: some people won’t like them! Some readers will actively disagree. Some will dislike the very presence of any themes at all (think of the ‘keep politics out of games!’ crowd).
The real trick is in not turning the book into a preachy treatise, or it sounding too much like my voice. There’s nothing worse than the voice and opinions of the author becoming too noisy and overwhelming or distracting from the story. It’s up to readers to decide whether I pulled that off or not. My hope is that I present the themes and raise questions, but leave the conclusions to the reader. It’s OK to disagree with some or even all of what I put into my books: that conversation between writer and reader is interesting to me.
I’m curious! Tell me down in the comments how you approach the thematic elements in your material. Are there topics you return to over and over? What techniques do you use to explore your themes?
Before you go, if you’re looking to expand your bookshelves, here are some free ebook giveaways that I’m taking part in:
‘Young people’ always sounds like such a patronising term. But you know what I mean.
Yes, I know that in the books Frodo is already in his mid-40s or something bizarre by this point, but go with the metaphor, OK?