The Theme Nut

Everybody has different ways of writing. Sometimes I’m a bit jealous of the way other people can write.  It often looks so much better then my way.  One example of this relates to ‘Theme’.  You know, ‘Theme’ – the higher purpose of your story, the basic tenet which drives the whole thing… you know ‘Theme’.


No, me either.

I sometimes envy writers who start out with their theme.  “I know, today I shall write about ‘Man’s Inhumanity to His Fellow Man’, that’ll be good for a few smiles.”  

It must be great to be able to do that, just grab a Theme and off you bloody-well go.

It’s not me, I’m afraid.  It’s never a Theme that starts me off on anything.  It’s more likely to be a phrase or a tune or a two-line dialogue between two unformed characters.  Some scrap will start me on a writing road and I will follow it along as best I can.

But, chances are, I will never find my theme.  Not until I go hunting for it.  And I have learned never to do that until I am really close to the end.

You’ve got to play to your strengths when you write.  If I was forced to sit on a chair and not write anything until I had my Theme all sorted-out, I would never get anything done.  I’d sit there and look at the wall and eventually I would give up and decide I would never be a writer and go and cut the grass instead.  But I want to be a writer so I don’t do that.

Here’s what I do.

I do everything but Theme.  I do story and character and pacing and dialogue and editing and spell-checking and rewriting and… everything really.  I do everything.

And then, when everything else is done, I go Theme Hunting.

It sounds silly, I know.  It sounds wrong.  But it works for me.

When it’s all done, all written – whatever it is – I sit and look at it and I say, “Now, what is this fecker actually about?”  After a little looking at it, I start to see, very clearly, what it is actually about and then I have it, I have my Theme.

You must be disgusted with me.  “How can you do this?  This is not writing.  How can you possibly write anything of value if you don’t know what you are really writing about?”

Fair points, all.

The thing is, I do know what I am writing about, I am just not aware of it.  An element of writing is sub-conscious.  If I’ve thought up something I want/need to write then there is a reason I’ve arrived at that thing, there is some good reason why I want it written.  That, for me, is a given.  But if I mooch around trying to figure out what that reason is, then I may never get the writing done at all.  So, instead, I get the writing done and I wait for that sub-conscious driving force to turn up.  And, generally, when most of the writing is done, when all the clues to the Theme are assembled on the page, then it will reveal itself as if by magic.

“But,” you cry, “it’s too late then.  You’ve written an entire ‘Thing’ without any knowledge of the Theme.  How can it possible by any good?”

And here’s the thing.  The most important thing.  It isn’t any good.

That’s why we rewrite.

Think of me writing a story as putting a wheel on a car.  I tighten all the nuts to hold the wheel on.  I tighten the ‘Story’ nut, the ‘Character’ nut, the ‘Pacing’ nut – I tighten them all.  But there’s one nut I leave loose, mostly because I don’t know where it is.  When I find it, that elusive ‘Theme’ nut, I tighten it and tighten it and then I’m done… right?


Because this late tightening of the Theme Nut has only gone and made all the other nuts loose again. 

Yes indeed.  When I finally find my Theme, as I invariably do, that Theme colours and changes and tightens everything I had written before I found it.  Everything gets twisted to synch with my new-found Theme.

And, for me, this is the very best piece of the writing process.  It’s a wondrous polish where all the work I have done gets tuned to subtly compliment the theme.  You might not ever notice it, as a reader, listener or viewer but the product - the writing - becomes vastly more coherent and convincing as a result of this work.  At least I think it does.

So don’t hate me too much, if you’re one of those blessed people who start out with their Theme.  I may envy you a bit but I’ve found my own way to work around it.

It might not be great but it’s better than staring at the wall.


Jim Murdoch said...

Bollocks, tripe and twaddle! Of course your work has a theme but in whose rulebook does it say you need to know what you’re writing about before you start? Why start if you already know what your story is about? You may not set out with a theme in mind but as you write you filter out all the stuff that doesn’t bear any relation to the story and distil that down until you have a story with a theme or, if not so much a theme that permeates the writing, a point that the story leads up to. I never set out with a theme in mind with any of my novels but they all have a point. Sometimes I can express that point in a single sentence as in Milligan and Murphy where the point is: There are no reasons for unreasonable things, and, in Living with the Truth the point is: By the time you make any sense out of your life you’ll have no life left to anything with the knowledge.

When I sat down to write Left all I wanted to do was explore my relationship with grief. Grief is not the theme of the book though because the protagonist (and my proxy) finds she doesn’t know how to grieve; she barely knows how to feel. I said recently that I wasn’t as much interested in storytelling as I was in ideas and someone challenged me on that asking why I didn’t just write essays and it’s a good question but, for me anyway, ideas on their own don’t make sense. It’s like those trigonometry problems we got at school. All very interesting but what had they to do with the real world? Now lean a ladder against a wall and trigonometry starts to make some sense.

My current project is about memory loss. It’s taken me a year to work out what mattered to me enough to write about but you read my blogs so you know how much my poor memory bothers me. It seem like an obvious thing to want to explore but what’s the theme? God alone knows. I’ll be honest I would imagine very few writers begin with a theme, a motif perhaps, an idea that niggles away at them but doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without some context. That’s what your writing does. This is something I was talking to Dave King about recently, that truth is nothing more than facts in context and I suspect that’s a big reason why I don’t write essays too but I guess that’s what I was going on about with the ladder.

No one would suggest for a moment that Harold Pinter is not a great author and yet, in an interview, I heard him talk about how he often begins writing: he hears voices saying lines and often he has no idea what the setting is or even the gender of the people doing the talking and that’s the first thing he needs to resolve: when does he get round to theme? By the end, like the rest of us.

Ken Armstrong said...

Good man Jim. You've very effectively called my bluff and made me smile too.

As I often do, I am trying to be provocative through self-abasement. I agree totally that one writes to a theme and I know I do this. However I have found that sitting down and stating this theme at the end, once it is clearly known, is a wonderful way of interrogating the writing I have done. It's like a sort of a 'Theme Filter' that I can apply to the story and it immediately shows how elements could be better aligned to serve the overall effect.

I also agree that there's probably not too many people who start out with just a theme. But I do see people, many people, who want to write and don't and one of the many excuses that they allow themselves is that they don't know what they want to say. My point would be that they don't need to know that. They just need to write and the rhyme and reason will follow along in its own time.

I like the trigonometry/ladder analogy. I'd keep that one, if I were you.

hope said...

Must be why we get along so well.

Anything I write that's worthwhile in my book, no pun intended, starts with a nagging sentence. No, not the ordinary,"In the beginning, the Jones ruled the world and no one could keep up with them."

Nope, mine sounds more like,"Ken woke up with a smile on his face one morning and decided to write a book. Not just any book, mind you. One which had value. To him."

And until I write down that sentence it will whisper itself all day until I do. If more words follow, great. If not, my brain decides when to move on, and takes me down the garden path towards who knows what. Later, I will rewrite, which it took me a long time to understand was part of the process of not perfection, but of letting characters grow up.

Keep doing it your way...I enjoy those words you choose. :)

Art Durkee said...

What Jim said.

I never know what's going to happen when i sit down to write. I don't always even know if it's going to be a poem, or prose, or my usual boundary defying mix of both. Within a few lines of starting a poem, I know what the form is, but usually not beforehand. Except for haiku, I never set out with a formal intention.

Bollocks to the idea that we have to know what we're doing beforehand. In my experience, aside from the occasional writing prompt exercise, that usually leads to bad writing. Precisely to the amount that the subconscious is excluded from the process, it tends to be dry and dull and lifeless. Lots of poets those days seem to prefer the orderliness of craft to the anarchy of inspiration, but then a lot of that ends up just being boring prose broken into lines.

"Rules" are pointless. It's not about following an existing map, it's about making new ones. Lighting out for the territories.

Interesting Facts said...

I think you should keep doing it your way. I absolutely enjoyed those words you choose. No doubt.