The Way of the Word

14. January 2010

What Is the Writer Trying to Say?

Filed under: writing — jensaltmann @ 10:53

Having a theme, or you might call it a message, is essential if the reader is supposed to connect with your story. Taking Dexter as an example, the first three seasons were fun and entertaining, but season 4 was the  only one that really had me on the edge of my seat. Season 4 was also the only one where I detected a theme that combined everything and worked like a red thread through all the character arcs. Even the bad guys’s.

Without a theme, some deeper meaning, what you get is the proverbial flash in the pan. It might be entertaining and fun, but it’s like fast food: when you’ve finished it, you’re still hungry. It’s the literary equivalent of empty calories.

Adding a theme, a message, relevance, is tricky. If you’re too subtle, it might get lost. (Caveat: even if the readers don’t notice it, it will still affect their reading experience.) The other end of the spectrum is being so heavy-handed about it that you sledgehammer it home and annoy your audience.

I’m of the latter type. Every time I make a conscious effort to add relevance to my story, it becomes as oppressive as the one in Avatar. Unlike James Cameron, however, I don’t have several hundred million dollars to make it so pretty that people get distracted from it. As someone who doesn’t like sledgehammered messages, I usually end up tossing the manuscript into the trash.

What I do instead is, I focus on just having fun. I get what I think is a cool and fun idea, then I work on it and let it surprise me. Usually, something relevant creeps into the story without me even noticing until it’s done.

Cowboys & Barbarians, for example, turned out to have strong themes of friendship and loyalty. It affects all the characters, even the bad guys to a certain extent. Actually, one character doesn’t seem to be affected by it, but that’s not quite true. Because that character is an outsider. He’s not part of the group. He doesn’t belong.

I didn’t set out to do that. When the manuscript was finished, and I discovered this theme, that surprised even me.

The Coldest Blood also had no theme or message when I started on it. Again, when I was done… In the first half of the story, Shaw finds love and it affects, changes him. About halfway through, he loses it. During the second half, we see how that affects and changes him. So, no, I didn’t set out to write a mystery thriller about this. It just crept into the story.

In Jahrmarkt des Grauens, several people are revisited and punished for, well, not necessarily the evil that they did, but rather for wrong decisions they made. Now that I think about it, that story was very much about guilt and weakness and wrong decisions. And about delusions: the one character who is unaffected is the one who has come to terms with what he did and what he’s supposed to be punished for. And in the end, those doing the punishing are defeated because they are made to face their own delusions.

Revenge of the Walking Dead started out as my attempt to cash into the zombie craze before it burns out and fades away. And yet… Once again, something deeper crept in. Everything in this novel happens because someone hates someone else. They do something nasty to that other. That other one retaliates, escalating the conflict, up to the point where the escalation reaches the level of a zombie apocalypse. Those who save the day are the two people who don’t have anyone to hate — one because he’s an outsider, the other one because she has grown beyond such things.

I have an outline for a novel in my files where almost every character in one way or another chases immortality — but only those who don’t will end up getting it. That will be an historical horror novel, but I’m not yet ready to write it. Anyway, it seems that the theme of that novel will be vanity.

This is the point where I sigh and shake my head in wonder. I used to think that all I write is fluff. Am I wrong? How come I’m always the last to find out about these things?

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