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Uncle Orson's Writing Class
Themes
August 2, 2000


This lesson came about as an answer to the following question someone recently wrote to the Student Research Area: "I was wondering about your response about books not having "a theme." Isn't a theme no more than a inner lesson found within a book that the author uses to convey his/her lesson. A book without a inner lesson isn't worth writing except for the reader's pleasure. My question is what inner lesson do you try to convey within your short stories and novels?"

Quoth thou:
"A book without an inner lesson isn't worth writing except for the reader's pleasure." An interesting idea, but it disappears upon examination, for a reader doesn't take pleasure in reading a story unless the story feels, at some level, as though it matters -- as though important things are happening. (It also has to feel believable, but that's another issue.) So if I write a story that really engages a reader's attention, it will have elements that make the reader care what happens to the people in the story, eager to find out how it all comes out.

What is it that intrigues and interests the readers, that makes the events of the story seem important? It isn't that they really happened -- obviously, we don't read fiction for that. It is almost always that there are issues and problems in the characters' lives that resonate with issues and problems that the reader cares about -- not necessarily that the reader has lived through or will live through, but issues that the reader thinks are very important ones in life.

But are these "issues" a theme? They are always issues that one could write many essays about, but the fiction writer has chosen NOT to write an essay. Therefore, the issue doesn't function as a theme or "lesson." Rather it is part of the story - part of WHY people do the things they do, and what the consequences are when they do them. If the writer has a preconceived conscious plan for how to present a particular philosophical point, he will start to ignore his own unconscious ideas and will force the characters to act out his little allegory. The result is: Bad fiction, and therefore an ineffective presentation of the theme. But if the writer shunts aside those preconceived plans, or subverts them deliberately (i.e., make THOSE ideas belong to a character that the audience is supposed to despise), that very humility leads the writer free to tap into his unconscious feelings and ideas about how the world works and what is worth telling tales about.

The reader who gets the story that truthfully and powerfully connects with the real world by way of the writer's unconscious understanding of it WILL find "themes" in the story. But they won't necessarily be themes that the writer was aware of, and will almost never be themes that the writer "put" into the tale. Just because readers value the powerful connections with reality they find in the fiction they read does not mean that to write great fiction, the writer should "insert" powerful themes. On the contrary, it means that the writer should continue to trust his unconscious mind to make those powerful causal connections and to find powerful, resonant issues.

So let me take your sentence and twist it around to the point where it becomes, if not true, then closer to the truth. You said "A book without an inner lesson isn't worth writing except for the reader's pleasure." What I say is, "A book that gives a reader pleasure does so because the reader cares deeply about issues that the characters face in the tale."

How does a writer know if he's found a powerful issue? Simply this: If the writer cares enough about these issues to want to tell stories about characters who face them, then there will be readers - perhaps many, perhaps only a few - who will also care about those issues and want to read the stories that the writer writes. In the long run, "hack" work is virtually impossible to do at all well. If you try to write a story that you don't care about, just to make money by satisfying some supposed "commercial" need, you will end up writing a book that nobody cares about, because you didn't care. Most writers who think of themselves as "hacks" (i.e., "taxi-drivers," driving their story wherever the "fare" wants to be taken) in fact, without even realizing it, build their story not on the superficial "commercial" things they attempt to insert, but rather upon deep, core issues that they very much care about. The fact that they have no idea they're doing this makes them all the more effective. It's what separates, for instance, John Grisham and Tom Clancy from a lot of Grisham- and Clancy-wannabes. Their stories remain in touch with matters that they care very much about - but they become less effective (cf. "Street Lawyer") the more conscious the writer becomes of the theme he's trying to develop.

The same is true of literary writers who try to write about themes. In a way, this is identical to "hack" work - trying to insert elements that will please a particular kind of audience. Most of the time, when these stories work at all, they do so, not because of the "plan" of the work but in spite of it, because of unconscious concerns that bubble up into the story and give it life despite the deadly story-killing "theme" elements that the writer consciously manipulates.

That's why, when you really love a book, it makes you think about important ideas and issues and fresh and powerful ways. It isn't because the writer planned it that way. It's because the writer let his unconscious mind have a lot of chances to control elements of the story. It's because the writer got out of the way and let the truth of his heart dominate the opinions in his mind.

-- 2 August 2000


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