1. companionableills
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    companionableills Member

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    Theme/Thesis vs. Story

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by companionableills, May 23, 2008.

    The majority of my English and writing education in the last four years has focused on "literary analysis" - reading not for comprehension but for deeper meanings. I've written essays on the repetition of the word "green" and what effects it has on the development of the character's psyche blah blah blah.
    I really love finding symbolism and identifying literary devices as well as themes, and I'd found it's started to influence my writing. Most of the pieces I write begin very quickly to shape a theme or a thesis with symbolic motifs and all that good stuff. For the most part this works - I've managed a few pieces that work on the surface as a story but have more literary depth - but other times it bogs down my writing, and I start writing heavy-handed theme-driven stuff that loses sight of the basics like engaging plot and characters. One piece specifically is giving me a lot of trouble lately with this balance.

    My question is, do any of you try to imbue your pieces with deeper meanings through symbolic imagery, sonic devices, allusions, etc.? If yes, at what point in the writing do you start working with this and how do you keep it secondary to the overall story?
     
  2. lordofhats
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    lordofhats Contributing Member

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    You should read Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein. That is probably the most theme heavy piece of literature ever written, with virtually no attention or effort given to expanding the characters or their story roles. Surprisingly enough its still a very popular book.

    I find alot of people seem to prefer Story over theme, but I've seen it go both ways. Itas always fun to go through a book and find the symbolism and the heavy themes it can contain. At the same time it can take away from the story itself if you spend o much time working to find a deeper meaning.

    I think you can make it work either way, or you can find a middle ground.

    I often have themes in my stories but I often subjegate the theme to the storyline prefering that people enjoy the story first and can then come bakc and find the deeper meaning later if they want to. I tend to have theme present from the start of the piece, but I write the story and the cahracters first, and then go back and fit the theme in and expand on it (But not too much :p).
     
  3. Kratos
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    Kratos Contributing Member

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    The purpose of reading a work of fiction is usually for the story, so that's most important. It's cool to have some symbolism, but not when it takes center stage over the story.
     
  4. Al B
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    Al B Senior Member

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    Yup sure do.

    Here's a bit from a story I'm currently working on, to explain what's going on, Jim is calling at his friend's rented apartment, with the sad duty of having to clear out his buddy's stuff following the recent apparent suicide of his friend. In the story, he goes on to suspect it was was in fact murder, but at this point that is yet to be revealed to his character, although the reader may guess this, owing to something in the preceding chapter. However, when it does become clear to him, he must put aside his fears and upset and start doing stuff which requires some major guts in order to survive and see justice done, as he becomes embroilled in a major conspiracy to do with national security:

    Jim knocked on the familiar door, he knew the individual apartment buzzers had not worked for years. Looking about as he waited for someone to answer, he noticed a cat had been at the milk delivery, evidently managing to prize off one of the foil lids and topple the bottle to get at the cream. He shuffled to one side, to avoid the river of milk now snaking its way toward the gate.

    The door opened. It was the landlord. He looked down at the milk and tutted loudly. Jim hoped he didn’t think it was him that had kicked the bottle over.


    In case you didn't spot it, the imagery equates to the saying 'there's no use crying over spilled milk', and is also symbolic of blood spillage when someone dies; the phrasing of 'getting at the cream' is also significant, as his friend was a very clever man, one who would be considered 'the cream'. The idea that Jim hoped the landlord didn't think it was him who had kicked the bottle over, alludes to Jim hoping the landlord didn't think he was in any way responsible for his friend being driven to suicide, which at this point, he believes is the cause of death.

    The other thing which is going on in this scene, is something which Raymond Chandler did a lot with his selection of locations for scenes. The setting of the very average suburban housing, where mundane things such as the milk delivery getting knocked over by a cat take on some significance to the residents, is one which mirrors Jim's mundane life at this point in the tale, which is why it is included as his observation. Later in the story, any mentions of things which Jim spots in various situations, become more and more significant and of more serious things, to mirror his character having to concentrate on more serious matters in order to succeed.

    Of course it doesn't get in the way of reading the story at face value, but the fun things like those subliminal messages are there for people who like that sort of thing, and even if not fully aware of them, I suspect it still works on a subconscious level with the reader.

    Al
     
  5. tehuti88
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    tehuti88 Contributing Member

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    My stories seem to keep taking on Jungian themes related to his ideas of archetypes, etc. I think it came about kind of naturally since it's a subject I'm interested in. So, while I wrote about one subject of interest (mythology) for the plot, another subject of interest (archetypes/individuation) became the theme. The symbolism fell into place accordingly. By now, it's there almost from the beginning and isn't really something I work on much, unless I feel it's too vague at some points, when I try to make it clearer.

    I'm afraid I haven't any advice on how to avoid becoming heavyhanded with the themes, because in truth, I sometimes wonder if my writing suffers the same problem! Theme and symbolism are difficult to pull off sometimes because one can never be sure if the reader will catch such things or not. Perhaps it's better to err on the side of caution and focus more on the plot? That way, the people who are reading just for the story will get what they want out of it, and those who are reading for the theme and symbolism, since they're already looking for such things, will probably manage to find them on their own, without the story being too "preachy." Some people just don't read for a deeper meaning. (I sometimes get the feeling that the majority of the few people who read my stuff have no idea about any of the themes I've got going on...*sigh*)

    I find that theme seems to fall into place most easily when it's something you're so used to being there that you don't focus on it a lot. By now, I'm just used to my own themes falling into my writing. But I have no advice on how to achieve this. It helps if the themes are things you look for in your own life, but obviously that can't always be the case.
     
  6. companionableills
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    companionableills Member

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    Al - thanks for the advice... I think I have a pretty good feel for it - I've been studying in depth The Bell Jar and Survivor, which have some serious, deep motifs that don't detract from the telling of the story. Did you write that passage with the specific intention of having all that symbolism, or did you sketch out the action and then go back in and decide what meaning you wanted and inject those images?
    I think my big issue is with the specific piece I'm struggling with... I may put it here for review and add a note with this specific question, but I'm really unhappy with it and don't want my first piece here to be so rough.
     
  7. Al B
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    Al B Senior Member

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    Well, a thing to bear in mind here, is that I copied and pasted that particular piece out of my manuscript because I knew it was one which had a lot of things in it of that nature, so it was a good example to pick. But I wouldn't want you to get the impression that every single word I type has that much stuff in it, because it doesn't. Generally speaking I try to keep descriptive passages to a minimum and have the dialogue drive the story.

    So cramming every line with a metaphor, similie or an allegory would be like laying it on with a trowel, although it might actually be quite a funny thing to do deliberately in a comedy piece.

    Specifically on that bit of copy, I set out to write the section of the story from where he arrives at the door (which is actually the start of that section after a soft hiatus), right on through to where he is in the apartment about to discover something which arouses his suspicions about the supposed suicide.

    So, it started with picking the crappy location, which is an obvious motif, the broken door buzzers helped to convey that feeling of it being run down, but pointing out that Jim knew they were broken, highlighted the fact that he was familiar with the place so cements the notion that the victim was a good friend.

    Having set that up without requiring too much thought, initially I had him looking through frosted glass waiting for the door to be answered, with the landlord approaching the door as kind of like a ghostly silhoutte through the frosted glass. The imagery is a tad obvious, even so it might have worked, but it was a bit cliched and it relied too much on the reader visualising how I visualised it, so, I swapped it for Jim looking around at the door and the step and all that kind of thing.

    Initially I was going to have him looking at the peeling paint, which was merely a descriptive passage not intended to have anything symbolic about it, when it occurred to me about the milk that might be on the step, which started me on the 'spilled milk' metaphor.

    As you might have noted from some of my other posts, I used to write for a paper - in addition to subbing it - which is a job that requires one to come up with the headlines. Now, if you do that for years on end, it makes it easy to do, and so it's fairly simple for me to make linguistic connections like that, simply through force of habit. I don't particularly see it as a skill, but I know everyone I seem to work with tends to regard it as something marvellous, and so when I train people in writing and they ask me how I do that, I tell them that basically it's a bit like a mental thesaurus and is something which you can actually do on paper by using word association. After doing that for a while, you tend to be able to do it in your head. That's kind of how I developed the ability to do it on the fly.

    Back with the snippet in question, other motifs such as the cream and the word 'toppled' when describing the bottle going over (which is kind of like someone falling down dead) came as a result of that process, so I then worked in the bit about 'the cream' and the river of blood comparison.

    When the scene continues, the landlord isn't a particularly likable character, so I had him take a disapproving tone with the Jim character, which natiurally led to me thinking about Jim not wanting someone to disapprove of him, which then expanded to him not wanting the landlord to think that his relationship with what was now his dead tenant was anything to do with Jim. which of course led to the descriptive passage about Jim not wanting the landlord to think he'd knocked the bottles over, as a symbolic version his thoughts at the time.

    In short, it was a process which flowed fairly naturally as I typed it and weighed up their upcoming conversation, while playing a few word games in my head. Obviously for some parts I would skip back and change it as things occurred, although it was all fairly spontaneous, probably an hour or so for the bit up to where Jim gets suspicious, which is maybe ten or so paragraphs after the snippet I posted.

    Al
     

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