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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Got theme?

   
Author Topic: Got theme?
MattLeo
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I thought I'd step on the "writing with conviction" third rail again and ask people what themes crop up in their works, and whether those works have "theses" (explained below).

Just so we're all on the same page, the Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms defines "theme" as
quote:
A salient abstract idea that emerges from a literary work's treatment of its subject matter. While the subject of a work is described concretely in terms of action (e.g. "the adventures of a newcomer in the big city), its theme or themes will be described in more abstract terms (e.g. love, war, revenge, betrayal, fate, etc.).
Some critics use "theme" and "thesis" interchangeably, other call a thesis in fiction "theme"; but we'll stick with the ODL:
quote:
...The thesis of a literary work is its abstract doctrinal content, that is, a proposition for which it argues.
So to recap a *subject* is the concrete stuff a story deals with ("space colonization"). The *theme* (or themes) is the abstract topics the story concerns ("ecology", "alienation"). *The* thesis is the idea you'd like the reader to come away with (e.g. "Human psychological health is inextricably linked with the Earth's biosphere.").

So, got themes? Got theses? If so, what are they and where did they come from? Did they come before the story was written, or did they emerge with the writing?

[ June 15, 2012, 12:13 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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rcmann
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A theme I find recurrin in my work, whether I do it on purpose or not, might be summed up as "Theory be damned, pragmatic survival takes priority." In other words, I have a low opinion of political correctness. I also favor sticking with procedures and standards that have proven themselves by standing the test of time.

In other words, I'm a crotchety old geezer and it shows.

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MattLeo
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quote:
In other words, I'm a crotchety old geezer and it shows.
So for you theme and thesis comes naturally. For me they emerge as I work on a piece.

I started out to lampoon the Ruritanian Romance in *The Wonderful Instrument* and ended up exploring the connections between romanticism and fascism.

I started to write a hybrid martial arts fantasy sci-fi story in *The Quest for Norumbega* and I ended up writing about Jewish identity, and the inevitable connection between attachment and loss.

I began *The Keystone* as a space opera/1930s screwball comedy movie mash-up. Since those movies all ended with the protagonist getting married, I had to make romance a theme, but looking for non-mushy counterpoint I eventually ended up exploring how there are other forms of love (comradeship, nurturing, teamwork, leadership, loyalty, even hero-worship) and showing how the protagonist grows through experiencing each one of them.

Have you ever considered writing the "against" side of the debate on your usual thesis, just to see what happens?

[ June 15, 2012, 12:36 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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extrinsic
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I don't know of any literary concept more used for analysis but less written about for what it means than theme. Dictionary definitions do not do the term justice. Poetics and writing how-tos skimp, short-shrift, take theme for granted, like everyone automatically knows what theme means.

I started into building my own meaning by examining theme from a practical application. Say a Cinco de Mayo themed party. Obviously, a Mexican Independence Day theme. Motifs of the party, therefore, would include Mexican beverages, foods, decorations, apparel, and music.

Any Rand's Lexicon relates theme to motif and vice versa. Motifs are recurring, salient features that relate to a theme. Motif is to theme as metaphor is to trope, as tree is to forest. Similarly, imagery and symbolism recur like motifs, but they relate intangible concepts through concrete representations, imagery related to visual sensations and symbolism related to immaterial, ideal, or intangible truths or states of being.

Rand also relates theme to plot through dramatic conflict. A theme is a unifying feature that binds an entire work into a cohesive whole. If a theme, say, of an individual in society intends a conflict, for example, of acceptance or rejection, from those foundations a dramatic complication, characters, settings, and events may surface and a workable writing plan may develop.

My go-to theme-conflict is a familiar stranger struggling for a sense of belonging in an alienating and hostile society. That's what I prefer to read and write. Fortunately, most, if not all, literature to some degree relates that theme of an indvidual in society conflicted by alienation.

[ June 16, 2012, 01:15 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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rcmann
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:

Have you ever considered writing the "against" side of the debate on your usual thesis, just to see what happens? [/QB]

In fact I have. I have tried having my characters debate it. Unfortunately, the character that favors idealism over pragmatism usually gets killed and eaten.
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Robert Nowall
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I've been drawn to the notion of expressing the meaning of every story in a single sentence. I can't say I can do so with my own stories, but I'm drawn to the notion.
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robertq
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MattLeo writes
I began *The Keystone* as a space opera/1930s screwball comedy movie mash-up. Since those movies all ended with the protagonist getting married, I had to make romance a theme, but looking for non-mushy counterpoint I eventually ended up exploring how there are other forms of love (comradeship, nurturing, teamwork, leadership, loyalty, even hero-worship) and showing how the protagonist grows through experiencing each one of them.
----------------

It seems that this process has to be discovered for each individual writer. Rand's approach was akin to Dostoyeavsky I beleive, very consciously cognitive. Of course she was writing "novels of ideas" so this makes sense. In plays, that most "subconscious" of literary forms, David Mamet has said he doesn't have a clue what a given play is about until the 12the draft, which I thought was interesting.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Just out of curiosity, where do you think subtext fits in relation to theme?
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extrinsic
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Me?
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MattLeo
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If not you, who?

People use the term "subtext" all different ways. The dictionary definition covers literally any kind of meaning that is not explicit, from an unspoken thesis to things going on under the surface when two characters speak to each other.

It's worth remembering that you don't have to come out and say everything explicitly. It's kind of like an extension of "show not tell"; perhaps "tell, but imply more than you tell." Readers value conclusions which they figure out for themselves more. For example in my current WIP, the following exchange takes place:

quote:
Archie (to Diana): But this is her ship. It's not like we can kick her off it.

Kate: D**n right. If anyone's going to do any kicking, it'll be me kicking the lot of you off at the next packet station.

Diana: You wouldn't dare!

Archie: Dearest, *please* don't say things like that to the captain.

One *theme* the reader has frequently encountered by this point is Kate's aggressiveness and readiness to transgress social norms when she's confronted. The *subtext* here is that Archie is afraid Diana's challenge will goad Kate into actually kicking them off her ship. That's not hard to figure out, but the theme makes it even more clear. A *different* theme (e.g. if Archie was easily embarrassed and overly respectful to people in authority) might encourage you to construe an entirely different subtext from the same exchange (e.g. Archie is embarrassed by Diana's lack of proper respect for authority).

If I were narrating in third person omniscient or from Archie's POV, I could make the subtext explicit by telling you what Archie is thinking. The action and significance of the scene wouldn't change, just the way I communicate what is on his mind. Since the WIP is comedy, it's always better to leave a few people in the dark than to explain the joke.

In any case "subtext" seems somewhat orthogonal to things like "thesis" and "theme"; it describes the mode of expression rather than a function. A theme engages a reader's interest and feelings; a thesis provides an idea to take away from the story. Subtext is simply a mode of delivering things like those.

[ June 16, 2012, 12:09 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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MartinV
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I don't really distinguish between theme and plot and don't care to. Make an interesting story, compelling characters and stop worrying about literary theory.
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MattLeo
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quote:
Make an interesting story, compelling characters and stop worrying about literary theory.
And how *specifically* do you go about making an interesting story without thinking about literary ideas? Can you chuck out concepts like narrative mode, point of view, or plot structure?

This reminds me of one of Milton's arguments against censorship in *Areopagitica*: unhealthy minds can draw poison from healthy texts, and healthy minds can draw sound nourishment from diseased texts. There's no value for writers or non-academics in arguing over definitions of technical terms, but a writer is vitally interested in the topics those terms describe, because it's all about the kinds of effects a writer can produce in a reader and how.

Take the discussion above. It shows that writers approach theme and thesis in different ways. That's not practical in itself, but it lead to Kathleen bringing up *subtext*, which is a nuts-and-bolts technique that every writer should have in his toolbox. It's also inextricably tied to critical ideas like theme.

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extrinsic
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Subtext is a meaning underlying a surface meaning. Subtext's prominent function is expressing emotional meaning. Two love interests quarrel about what to do for dinner. One wants to go out in public; One wants to stay home in private. They're really, probably unknown to them, arguing for different solutions to their languishing relationship. One wants to leave; One wants to take the relationship deeper. That's situational subtext, expedient in the moment for exigent circumstances.

Perhaps the subtext situation is a motif of a larger scenario, perhaps symbolism or imagery, the four of which aren't far off from serving the same function: expressing abstract, immaterial, ideal, or intangible meaning using concrete meaning. While similar, they have distinguishing qualities and are distinguishable, maybe not divisible. Subtext is underlying meaning. Motif is a recurring situational thematic feature. Imagery is a recurring visual sensation motif. Symbolism is a recurring expression of an abstract feature using concrete concepts.

Situational subtext is to extended subtext as motif is to theme, as theme is to plot, character, setting, and event development. Extended subtext's close relationship to theme ties meanings together, literal meaning, figurative meaning, and emotional meaning.

Extended subtext expresses a figurative or underlying emotional meaning of a whole. Theme is a basis for tying parts together, for cohesion, for connecting parts of a whole. Take several situational subtext motifs, say one imagery, one symbolism, one neither but freighted with emotional meaning, they will artfully tie together into extended subtext through theme, through theme to dramatic conflict, through dramatic conflict to dramatic complication, and through theme to plot, character, setting, and event, voice even.

Humans naturally want to make sense of seemingly unrelated circumstances. Cum hoc; ergo propter hoc, Post hoc; ergo propter hoc, and Ad hoc; ergo propter hoc fallacies demonstrate the human capacity for illogically connecting unrelated circumstances. (Respectively: With this; therefore because of this, After this; therefore because of this, and To this; therefore because of this.)

Humans are clever problem and puzzle and riddle solvers. Surface meaning gives the dots readers want to connect; Subtext through theme provides a marker for readers' imaginations and problem solving skills to satisfactorily connect the underlying dots and fill in the gaps.

[ June 16, 2012, 12:18 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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quote:
Humans are clever problem and puzzle and riddle solvers. Surface meaning gives the dots readers want to connect; Subtext through theme provides a marker for readers' imaginations and problem solving skills to satisfactorily connect the underlying dots and fill in the gaps.
Yes! This goes right to robertq's question about how to make a story engaging. The difference between picking up on subtext and the narrator handing the same conclusion to you on a platter is the difference between going bowling and watching bowling on TV.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Readers value conclusions which they figure out for themselves more.

This, yes. Another fundamental writing principle. Don't make readers make too much or too little effort. Write the whole story. Don't make readers write it. Write the story so it's accessible, but not too simpleminded to require no effort, and leave readers feeling smarter not dumber than what they read, which speaks to the differences between going bowling and watching bowling on TV.
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MartinV
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Can you chuck out concepts like narrative mode, point of view, or plot structure?

Apparently I don't have to.
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Foste
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quote:
Originally posted by MartinV:
I don't really distinguish between theme and plot and don't care to. Make an interesting story, compelling characters and stop worrying about literary theory.

*High fives Martin*
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