The Theme Meme

It’s the first question we ask about a book, after maybe ascertaining if it’s a good read: “What’s it about?”

At what point do writers figure out what their own books are about, though?  I asked Scarlett the other day about her work, and was duly fascinated.  She turned the question back on me, and I was surprised to realize it was the first time I’d ever really considered it.

Usually when I’m asked, I clam up and inspect the wallpaper or fridge.  I shy away from discussing any details too early; details like storyline, plot, etc.

But Scarlett got me thinking.

When I started my WIP, I had a theme as part of my hook.  It was awful.  The book became didactic.  Then, thankfully, 70 pages in, the story completely metamorphosized.  Suddenly, plot took over.  I slumped in relief.  The book began to have life to it.  I put aside all thoughts of “theme” and the book gained for it.  Real characters took over, real issues, real fun.  It finally became the kernel of something worth reading.  This, by the way, is why I’ve always known I needed to chop out 80 pages.

I began to notice that two of my characters struggled with an issue that I’ve long felt is rather unacknowledged in life.  I smiled to myself and watched their different ways of integrating it into their lives.  I’d written it in unintentionally (on a conscious level, at least), but it truly worked.  It’s at the crux of their lives and their choices.  It’s intrinsic to their lives, and I didn’t have “a point” in mind when I first wrote it in.  Merely psychological exploration.

The moment I abandoned “a point” my manuscript became better.

So looking at theme now, it’s more that I’m wondering what I have in there, so that I can draw it out where it ought to be drawn out.  So I can understand…what?  The book?  Myself?  🙂

I think that somehow, we learn who we really are and then live with that decision.

~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Which of course gives birth to the Theme Meme:

1.  Do you tend to pick books with certain themes, and if so what theme?

I don’t.  I theme-hop.  Organically move from one writer to another, then to the continents or time periods they’re from, etc.  As a writer I now read to find books that’ll help me learn how to execute scenes, characters, etc.

2.  Do you prefer certain themes, and how do you like to see them explored?

Hm.  I love adventure, perhaps unsurprisingly.  I love to see the world through different eyes.  I like to see people come into their own.  But this doesn’t play into what books I read.  A great storyteller will capture me through any of a variety of themes.

3.  Do you feel like your work explores the same themes you read about most, or not?

No.  Strange how I say that instantly.   I think my protagonists as I currently have them–maybe.  With the exception that one of them mirrors some aspects of growing up as a teen immigrant in the US, something I did.  Although her story’s very different from mine.  My antagonists–nope.  Have I mentioned that I really like my antagonists?  🙂

4.  Would your literary theme/s match with your personal life theme/s?

I hope not!  Haha!  Oh, for someone who invented this meme, I’m a bit of a dunce.  I guess “literary” could mean the books I read or the book/s I write.  The new answer is sometimes.  As I mentioned, the antagonists’ themes are things I’ve thought about quite a bit over the years.

5.  If you had a theme song for your life, what would it be?

(It’s so much easier to ask than to answer, isn’t it?!)  I’m not sure, but it’d be something pretty peppy yet about being a pilgrim through life.

6.  What about a theme song for your books?

Yep.  Two songs by Josh Woodward.  One of my characters probably took her name from his music, too.  He’s so much the soundtrack to so many parts of the book, actually, that if it gets published, Woodward’s getting thanked in print.  🙂

Josh’s website (with sample music) is listed under Great Websites on the right-hand side of my blog screen, btw.  Check him out; he’s awesome.


About sputnitsa

Born in the US, I grew up in Africa and the West Indies, and returned stateside in my teens. After a decade in international development, democracy work, and inclusivity training for domestic NGOs, I joined Peace Corps, and after a year, experienced my first Russian invasion. I followed that up by volunteering with refugees and youth, and after some vacation time climbing minarets and mountains, I returned to New York City, where today I work on social justice with college students, produce short films, and write.
This entry was posted in character development, fiction, first drafts, Josh Woodward, meme, theme, writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to The Theme Meme

  1. hope101 says:

    I’m hopeless at understanding the themes in my own writing. I’m not so sure I’m great at figuring it out for others, either. It’s one of my regrets that I didn’t pursue an Arts degree in university, because I’d love to have both the vocabulary and the constructs to participate in this kind of discussion. I think it would make me a more appreciative reader too.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Oh wow, I’m not such a literati to be able to talk high-falutin’ like, oh no, not I! 🙂 I’m thinking more in terms of what sorts of issues do you usually lean toward, what sorts of moods or viewpoints (of life, whatnot) appear in your work, what sorts of common challenges or journeys do your characters go on, stuff like that. What do you think? 🙂

  2. Yarnspnr says:

    You know that great picture of planet earth taken from the moon or the Hubble telescope (not sure which)? There’s your theme. You can take push pins and stick them in and write about that place at any time you choose. Imagine writing 20 books about that place, each book 5,000 years after the one before it. Plots could be intermingled, or separate. People could be related or not. There’s so much to chew on! OR, you could start at the present and work every 5,000 years back. Would the books be different? Yes. Would the characters be different? Yes. Yet they would all be about planet Earth at the same location. A theme? But, of course! Yet all so very varied and different. Just a thought.

    • sputnitsa says:

      The theme being “population earth”? On one hand yes, that’s a way of looking at things. On the other hand it’s a point of view more than a theme, no? Still fascinating, though. 🙂

      Reading your comment makes me think how funny/interesting it is how voyeuristic fiction writing and reading are. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Another Writing Meme: All About the Theme « Neither Here nor There….

  4. hope101 says:

    Issues I lean towards: societal pressures, recovering lost integrity, balancing work and home, relationships as means to personal growth, importance of community, path of the wayshower, environmentalism, health, reconciliation…

    • sputnitsa says:

      Hope, I love that–“recovering lost integrity.” Really cool. I have that in mine, too. Say more about “path of the wayshower”? Really cool issues. I love reconciliation, too…

  5. “When I started my WIP, I had a theme as part of my hook. It was awful. The book became didactic. Then, thankfully, 70 pages in, the story completely metamorphosized. Suddenly, plot took over. I slumped in relief. The book began to have life to it. I put aside all thoughts of “theme” and the book gained for it.”

    I can relate to that. Themes emerge from my work organically. I do see similar themes in my works (as I wrote you), but it was never intentional. Guess my subconscious takes over.

    This was a fun meme to read. 🙂

  6. sputnitsa says:

    I’d love to hear others’ versions of the theme meme, so if anyone has time… 🙂

  7. hope101 says:

    Re path of the wayshower: I think I write about characters who don’t fit well into any societal norm. After waiting for others to change, and experiencing a loss of integrity during the delay, they often go on to create what they need. Initially that can make them socially isolated. Of course, because I write romance, the HEA is mandatory. So the world eventually repays them for their efforts. (Yes, closet idealist.)

    • sputnitsa says:

      🙂 🙂 Hey, we all want happily ever after in our lives. I know I can accept (and love) both in a book, but an ending where the hero is happy leaves me in more of an upper. ’tis the truth. 🙂

      Thanks for fleshing out your “path of a wayshower”!

  8. ralfast says:

    Well I answered the call. As for themes, well I don’t start with a theme, per say, but they do bubble up to the surface pretty quickly. I love discovering and exploring themes within my work.

  9. sputnitsa says:

    Hey Ralfast! Yay, you took on the meme! I enjoyed reading your answers. How quickly do your themes bubble up, then? I have to say, it’s revelatory to think through one’s own themes… 🙂

  10. ralfast says:

    Probably as soon as the characters come into being. Some come prepackaged with the character (the inner themes) and others arise from contact/conflict with others characters/situations as the story progresses. I do spend quite a bit of time thinking about the themes once they arise as they help me keep the narrative on track.

  11. I love to read and it is fascinating to consider things from the writer’s perspective.

    • sputnitsa says:

      Writing for the first time–or rather, writing seriously for the first time, with full commitment to write the complete first draft and fight my way through the edits and revisions until I realize this fantastic story I have in my mind, and then trying to share it–is REALLY eye-opening. I love hearing how other writers work, too.

      I remember reading a quote by an author in which he said that his first book was his education in writing. We learn by doing, in other words. And it completely changes how one reads others’ books!!! Not to mention movies. 🙂

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