Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Thoughts about theme in fiction...

Oh I spent ages trying to understand what 'theme' was, as opposed to 'subject' in fiction. Then one day it clicked. And much later, when I was asked, 'What's the novel about', I never knew whether people were wanting to know the subject matter, or what it was really 'about'. Maybe, neither did they.
This is the Bloomsbury catalogue entry for 'The Coward's Tale':
Poignant, poetic and spiked with humour: a novel about guilt and atonement, kinship and kindness, and the reverberations of the past.

Bear with me? Now - this is what I was doing in the first week of this New Year. Keep an eye open for things that might shape my view of the world... and might feed into my work?
I drove from my village in Sussex to a village in Suffolk, where for the first time, I met my youngest sister.
Charlie was over from New York where she is a freelance makeup artist, working with the great and the gorgeous, making them even more great and gorgeous. Here's Charlie discovering that I have our father's eyebrows, apparently (!) There are five of us. I was adopted at birth, as I decided to arrive before our parents were married, and that wasn't on back then. A bit of detective work and over fifty years later, we're finally together.
Or, sort of together. Three live in the USA, and have done for years. Susie (California) Charlie (Manhattan) Sally (Boston Mass.) One in Suffolk. (Phillipa). Susie was also over for Christmas. After a while, when the shrieks of excitement died down, we Skyped Sally
And this is the photographic evidence, chaps - all five sisters together... sort of!
What was that about theme? Kinship and kindness. Guilt and Atonement. The reverberations of the past. Only I turned mine into something different. Easy, really.


  1. This entire story is so lovely, I just cannot get enough of it. It's sad and bittersweet and wonderful. I love how you've just jumped right in. Thanks for being so open with it.

  2. Great photos, and great cheekbones everyone!

    I'm always curious about theme. Been reading a craft book recently about the importance of having a theme in mind, how all great novels have a solid theme.

    But I often wonder, do we need to create a theme in order to write the novel, or do we identify the theme afterwards, when we are trying to explain why a novel works, or fails to?

    So Victoria, did you start with your theme in mind?

  3. Ta Lauri - It's such a lovely thing to have happened. There's also lots I would not talk about, not yet - but this much is just joyous.

  4. I'm genuinely moved by this. Bit speechless actually. Theme schmeme. Great ending

  5. Hi Neil - (its Vanessa, last time I looked(!))

    No, I most certainly did not start 'with the theme in mind' which sound as though I made a conscious effort to write within these parameters. Rather, this theme IS my mind. It's the way I interpret events, my language, my translation of the language of others, in the end its what is important enough to cause me to fight to get it down so maybe I can understand a bit clearer? And so anyone who reads me and bothers to think about it, will understand where Im coming from, a little?

    All I can say is that most of the OK work I have ever done seems to echo the same rhythm, if that makes any sense. Trying to put that into a single sentence - the present seen through the prism of the past. Or - how if we let it, the past can hold us back, act as a ball and chain - and the most unlikely catalysts allow us to cut those chains and reach equilibrium. Or 'closure'.

    But that is beginning to sound poncy. Am I making sense?

  6. Vanessa,

    Sorry for the daft typo! I'm red-faced now.

    You make complete sense. I remember a tutorial I had with my university creative writing tutor. He said my stories were coming along nicely, but I told him I felt a problem was brewing.

    Deep down, I explained, I felt like all my latest stories were, fundamentally, about the same thing, which was evidence that I lacked sufficient imagination.

    Deep down they are the same, he explained, because deep down you wrote them.

    It makes so much sense to start with a "theme" or a "premise" as so many writing craft books advocate, but I think if I knew what the theme was, I wouldn't need to write the story.

    Maybe it's only once the story is done that I'll revise for clarity, and clarity of theme is something l'll look for. But even then, one of the pleasures for me of getting stories published is learning that other readers find different themes in them. I think if you try to control or impose your theme too much, the story is less likely to work.

  7. Wonderful post. What Rachel said! :')

  8. No worries, Neil - I get called lots of things, 'Victoria' is quite nice in comparison!

    Interesting that you saw the fact that you were exploring the same themes as evidence of a lack of imagination. I wonder if the pieces were addressing those themes in the same way? I doubt it. Just as mine don't.

    But the things that fascinate and preoccupy me will out in some way, no matter what scenario I impose.
    I can impose a scenario, see - perhaps by responding to a prompt, or to a commission (actually, hardly ever!) - but not a theme. That has to come naturally. Is that the same with you?

    Just telling a story is not enough, in other words.

    I have gone through patches of losing confidence in my themes, though. The imp on the shoulder saying 'Oh gad, not this old chestnut again...why not go and write a nice 'woman loses her man, then gets her man' story for a change?' But that scenario doesn't interest me in the slightest, so why would I waste my life writing it??

    Faced with that, the imp buggers off.

  9. I suppose at the time I wanted to show I could write about a range of things. And it's good to try new voices etc. But there's a risk of writing stories for other people rather than yourself, and turning down your own ideas because they are not "good enough", or not the right sort of thing.

    At the time I was writing lots of stories that involved small children. Not a surprise really; I was surrounded by them! And many of those stories were, at some level, about characters who fear losing children. Again, not a surprise!

    Sometimes one half of my brain - the half that thinks it is rational - your "imp", perhaps – would show its disaproval when yet another small child wandered into a story. But you work with what you've got - experience goes in one end, stories come out the other.

    Sometimes I want to write exciting, expansive, international crime thrillers. Any maybe I will someday. But that's not what's coming out at the moment. And I've learned not to mind and to listen to the stories as they come.

    I might make an imp model to stick pins in.

  10. Ha! Good idea, that. You'd make a killing selling them to writers. "Your very own personiseable self-critic... complete with coloured inks, six different wigs and a box of pins".

    I reckon we can write what we like, so long as it really excites us. If someone is seriously switched on by 'woman loses bloke and then gets bloke', as that's what life is about to them, then go for it, I say. On the other hand - I bet when you do write your blockbusters, they will have something in them that chimes with the earlier 'Works of Neil'!

    My 'war stories' collection, Storm Warning seems to echo some themes from Words from a Glass Bubble, and the latter wasnt about war at all, in the obvious sense. Maybe as you say, readers will see other things in there as well. Thats the joy of this game, I think.

  11. Aw, your real life story is better than fiction. Have you met them all now, or still waiting on meeting Sally?

  12. Thanks Sue!

    Hello womagwriter - I have now met them all. I think... unless there are more of us hiding out there somewhere! It is a lovely story - who needs fiction, eh?