09 October 2012

What's Your Theme

Over the last few weeks I’ve been editing Lies of the Dead, which started me thinking of when the initial idea came to me.

This book actually began with the narrative structure I wanted to use, and then came Liam (the main character), followed by an older brother and sister, Tom and Andi. Once I knew the characters, the conflicts and inciting event emerged, but as I began to mentally write the first chapters, much to my surprise, Tom's voice took over. 

Liam was the central character around which the story flowed, but the voice was definitely Tom. I tried several times to get back to Liam’s voice, because the narrative structure I wanted to use required that, but it didn't happen. Eventually I gave up fighting, listened to Tom and the story developed using a different structure.

Theme is one of the most insubstantial elements of writing and storytelling, and a long time ago I took on board the advice not to worry about theme until (at least) the first draft is finished.

I had no idea what the theme of Lies of the Dead was until I read the first draft. At that point there was a forehead-slapping moment because it was so blindingly obvious. I even had two characters in the book that epitomised the theme, although I hadn’t realised it as I wrote. 

I think a theme needs to be found rather than placed. If you start with a theme and try to mould the story to fit, the reader can feel as though a moral value is being forced on them.

Maybe you're reading this wondering if your novel has a theme.

Personally I don’t think it matters, some people may disagree, but when I read a book I’m not looking for a theme. I want a well-told story that takes me out of my every day and packs a strong emotional punch. Sometimes I’ve recognised a theme while reading a book, but often in discussing it with other people they’ve seen a totally different theme. I've also had people talk to me about links/ideas/themes they've seen in my writing, often things I hadn't recognised or even considered. Theme is not a hard and fast 'rule', people will find ideas that resonate with them.

If you see a theme in your book, great. Treat it with care - like fairy dust - lightly weave elements through your narrative that enhance the theme. If you can’t see a theme, don’t worry, because you can be sure that some of your readers will find one.

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