Theme – a Blurred Line between Grand Literature and the Firewood Material

Screen Shot 2013-02-07 at 21.41.51To me, books are not worth reading just for entertainment purposes. I want to learn something about the world and about myself, I want to be provoked into thinking about important issues.

Reading is a way to reflect, a mean for personal growth.  This is the reason why I hardly read any genre fiction: entertainment without depth, ideas and messages, doesn’t interest me. I’d rather see a 3D movie attraction; it takes less time and involves more senses.

I read literary fiction, but it’s not the same as long boring books. Many books I read can be categorized as adventure, spy novel, mystery, romance, paranormal, psychological thriller and sci-fi. Yet, they are still literature, because apart from telling very good stories they have a developed theme with ideas and messages.

As a writer I also try to write stories, which would entertain without insulting your intelligence.  Reading change people, some people even degrade under its influence like the Dorian Gray character in a novel by Oscar Wilde. I am not going to discuss the moral messages one gets by reading the current infamous “Shady Grey” bestseller, you just read a couple of its numerous one-star reviews.

Anyway, theme is something that can push the book with to its stellar heights. But what is it?

For a while, theme was another word for morals and message from the book. But  there are important differences. Theme is what the novel is about, it’s more about premise, as Glen C. Strathy puts it and it’s more about major questions the writer asks in her novel. For example,

Is it reasonable to stick to your faith when your friends/followers abandon it? (a Jesus Christ analogy)

Is it moral to avenge someone who confessed his sin?

Why do men react differently when they encounter the unknown, some are trying to fight it while others to befriend it? (The Abyss by James Cameron)

The more deeply developed your theme – the better your novel. It may even get a Nobel Prize one day because of your theme, but don’t quote me on this.

Messages and morals are not questions but lessons, sometimes very questionable. Many books tell you that greed is punishable. Is it always? Look at Russian oligarchs, they are doing well. And the only one who tried to preserve democracy in Russia (Khodorkovsky) is in prison. I’m steering away from politics now. It’s a bad juju, as Kristen Lamb would say.

As you can see, moralizing can get you in a big trouble. Many people hated Tolstoy’s War and Peace for the endless ramblings on the role of leader in the history.  Tolstoy tried to convince the reader the leaders have no power to direct the course of history, that it’s random things and doings of the crowd have the major impact. One doesn’t need to be a philosopher to see flaws in this.

Okay, having established that theme is awesome and morals  are for kindergarten, I’m moving to the best advice on how to pull off a good theme. In brief, it needs to be organically linked with your story and characters, because as I mentioned before theme is essentially your premise. Read on Theme links to Character Progression in here.

Lost you theme? Find out how to re-discover it here.

Facebook banner FINALAs I’m trying to finish editing of my upcoming romcom Mr Right & Mr Wrong  I spent some time thinking about its themes.  Did I pull them off well?

My heroine Chloe has to choose between one man and another. She’s conflicted because like it happens in real life this choice is not obvious. So, Chloe is dating both of them for a while (they aren’t aware of each other’s existence) and here comes another problem:  at what point this double dating becomes cheating? Is it the consummation point or something else?

Chloe is given a friendly advice to “wait and see”, but this worsens the situation. On top of that, she has an issue of self-actualization, so her career ambition and a dominant mother put her under an extra pressure.

The story is told from the first point of view, Chloe’s, and I have no chance to sneak in a moralizing message. It’s Chloe’s judgment and hers only. The examples of themes explored in the book are: When is it right to make a choice for your heart, is it ever final? What separates keeping secrets from cheating, half-truth from lies? What affects our choice and our perception of morality?

I loved writing this book, I had to consider really basic human interests, which were discussed in novels thousands of times,  and yet to make the story original and somehow new.  The time will show if I succeeded or not, but for now explore the power of theme in your writing.

Is theme something you think about a lot when you are reading or writing? Is it important for you and why? What themes do you find a fascinating subject?

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  • Ashen Venema

    I’m looking forward to your new novel.
    The bone of every
    theme, I think, is conflict, whether the protagonist knows what they want or
    not, there is conflict, a seeming struggle between subject and object. And at
    times the environment conspires to act on the protagonist and becomes the
    subject. I’m curious about the moments when this dichotomy transcends into
    another dimension.

    • GrigoryRyzhakov

      well said, Ashen. Conflict is the the key, but not let’s forget about that conflict is a very genre concept. There can be a lot of conflict, yet the theme is hardly developed. I think conflict is more linked to plot progression, while theme is to character. A lot of theme is developed in sequels, while conflict mostly belongs to scenes. That’s why, in my opinion, literary fiction is often heavy on the sequel, while the genre fiction – on the scene.

  • http://twitter.com/BookEditorSteph Edit-My-Book

    A lack of theme emerges quite clearly during the editing process. They’re the stories that lack focus and tend to wander all over the place.
    Can’t wait for the new book!

    • GrigoryRyzhakov

      I agree. I’m working hard to get done with editing it soon, the word count keeps growing meantime :)))