Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Excess Baggage: Turning Lurking Themes into Short Stories

I’d just finished writing the first draft of yet another novel that seemed to have wandered off in several directions when I made an important discovery. I was trying to work out (in retrospect) what my theme was, and so got out my old creative writing coursework books (this was pre-Google).

As I checked through my manuscript for any inkling of the theme, I realised what I’d done: I tried to fit every single thing I wanted to say about everything (except for the stuff I’d written about in a previous novel) into this one book. And because I hadn’t planned on this particular book being very long or meaty, it really suffered from the lack of focus.

I opened a sticky, peeling binder and found a yellowed sheet of paper with some old notes that jumped out at me:

Determine your theme for your story – one theme per story [double underlined]. New theme, new story. (Complementary subthemes are okay.)

Protagonist is “pro”-theme vs “anti” Antagonist.

Every additional (unrelated) theme you throw into the mix dilutes the power of that first theme - the one that made you want to write the story in the first place.

I listed all those extra themes I’d found in my novel and realised I was looking at a list of potential stories. Some of these themes that meant so much to me were strong enough to explore in future novels, but many of them were narrow and specific: ideal for short stories.

What about you? Have you considered writing a list of themes that speak to you and deliberately writing one story to a theme? Or do your themes tend to hijack your writing?


Elsa Neal is currently on maternity leave, but is volunteering (mostly one-handed) behind the scenes at Blood-Red Pencil. Her three-year-old "edited" this post (thank goodness for back-ups). She writes fiction as Elle Carter Neal and is based in Melbourne, Australia. Browse through the resources for writers available at her website or follow her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog.

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  1. Very helpful post, Elle. Theme is something I have always struggled with. I remember in literature classes being asked what the theme of a story was and sometimes I would be blank. Some, like Of Mice and Men, have obvious themes and others are so subtle it really takes some digging to get to them. And I think it is harder to find themes in commercial fiction. At least it is for me. Maybe it's time for another literature class. (smile)

  2. This is an interesting post, Elle. I agree that theme can be difficult to find in commercial fiction — perhaps because so many people's lives are so scattered that they relate to "scattered" stories and characters.

    Thinking of my own writing, I do find a theme, but I also find sub-themes that will be developed in future books (or sequels).

    Thanks for the reminder to focus. For a writer like me, who tends to venture off into tangents (does this amount to the hijacking you mentioned?), it should be printed out and stuck on the wall next to my monitor.

  3. I do remember reading some fascinating multi-themed stories ... but that was back in the sixties ... and that's another story.

  4. I find that my stories end up becoming overly thematic too. It tangles me up. Sometimes one needs to go on a good culling rampage. Sometimes the piece has to be thrown out and started again.

    I always have the intention of sticking to one theme, but somehow it multiplies and turns into a plague. Which is why short stories can be so helpful. It allows me to satisfactorily deal with a theme I really want to include, but can't because it will try kill my main plot, whilst still feeling like it belongs to the story.

    I've recently been learning to throw out old drafts so that I can't try to copy all the little bits and pieces that just destroy the flow. It makes my bin very fat and happy and it makes me feel wretched until the re-read. The improvement can be like the difference between accidentally drinking dishwater you thought was someone's left over milk and drinking a good hot chocolate.

    The problem is, I like all the old multi-themed stories.

  5. One problem we writing teachers have is that there are so many words with multiple definitions floating around out there. What you write of here, Elle, that defines the protagonist and antagonist, I would call a "premise"—the author's conscious, overall organizing notion of the story.

    In my lexicon, several "themes," often planted subconsciously, could weave through a story organized around one premise, such as themes of gardening (in one of my novels, I later realized that every one of my characters was growing one thing or another), or physical fitness.

    I'm not saying you're wrong—I have many times heard the word "theme" used just as you have it here—I'm only pointing this out because it can be confusing. Luckily there's no test, lol!

    The main thing is to avoid sending your story in too many unrelated directions, which is a point well taken.

  6. I know what you mean, Maryann. Theme is one of the more difficult aspects of writing to wrap one's head around.

    Hi Linda, yes those tangents can hold a wealth of thematic material, but it pays to focus on one at a time.

    LOL, Christopher. And I think pharmaceutical assistance was required to read (and write) those books...

    Thanks for visiting Jovanna. You're right - short stories help to hone one's skill and focus.

    Thanks Kathryn. That's helpful to think of it as an overarching "premise" with "themes" branching off, rather than a "theme" and "subthemes", where it could be harder to work out when a subtheme has grown too far into an actual theme.


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