1. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    Themes in Writing

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Dunning Kruger, Mar 2, 2015.

    In another recent thread here and in other places I traverse, I have seen writers state they dont put much thought into a story's theme. They start with the character and the plot and build from there. I dont really understand this. To me, a theme is the point of the story.

    To make my point, contrast two recent tv shows: Lost and Breaking Bad. Both had interesting characters and some plots. But with Lost, once the the writers got past the original idea, they had no idea where to take it. Plane crashes on remote island with supernatural forces. Ok, what now? They had no idea and it showed, finishing with a much derided finale.

    Breaking Bad had a powerful theme of Walter's desire to satisfy his ego as a drug dealer but ultimately it cost him everything. It probably started with a cool idea - chemistry teacher has cancer and uses his knowledge to make crystal meth to pay for chemo. But the theme kept it going and ultimately led to a satisfactory ending.

    That's my perspective. Could others, particularly those who dont start with a theme, please share how they think about this? What am I missing from the opposing point of view? I am genuinely curious how other approach their craft of creating a story what I might learn from these perspectives.
     
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  2. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    I think both can work. Some stories I've written started with a grand idea, some with a character and a surprising number began with just an opening line that appealed to me. Some have even begun with just a title, which I'm sure is how The Beverly Hillbillies came to be.
     
  3. Alley
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    I often come up with a character and a problem they are facing or a situation they get into and feel like there's a story lurking somewhere there. However, I don't seem to be able to see the story clearly until I can identify the theme that drives the character. When developing a plot without having identified the theme yet, I often feel like pieces of the story do not belong in some way - however, once I worked out what the theme is I can usually tell quite easily why that piece was wrong or did not fit there and what I need to change to improve it. I suspect that writers who do not formulate their themes probably still have the same feeling about their stories.
    I'd be happy to learn how to do it differently, though. It often takes me very long to find out what's the theme of the scenario I've come up with.
     
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  4. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    I do not think of a theme either. For one, the theme that you have in mind is not necessarily going to be what your audience sees. If your audience does not see the theme that you intended to convey, does that make it pointless? I would hardly think so.

    A story does not need a unified, central idea either. Consider your life as a story. Were you born knowing exactly the entire point of your life and its meaning? Would you say that you have only learned one thing in your entire life, one lesson? Can you see clearly everything that is going to happen in your life such that you can summarize its entirety into one message? Stories to me are a stylized biography of the characters and their interactions, much like real life, and like real life, not everything is born knowing its one true purpose ahead of time. Ultimately, the point of life is up to the ones living it to decide for themselves. This is why people from different point of views will see different themes in the same story--or lack thereof.

    To me, even without a central theme in mind, as long as you clearly have in mind point A and point B, the line "how" connecting those points will naturally give birth to a theme along the way, even if you are unaware of it. It is the very nature of life.

    In the example with Lost, the writers probably just got overwhelmed with the large cast and too many events going on. They just "lost" their sense of direction I would think.
     
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  5. Alley
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    I feel like you just nicely summed up the source of the majority of the challenges in my life. :D It would be terribly tedious though if your life (or my life, for that purpose) only were about one theme. ;)
     
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  6. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    No, they were just churning out a soap-opera and trying to make it mysterious. There never was a sense of direction, or theme, or even plot.
     
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  7. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    I completely disagree with you. I don't care who you are--Einstein, Proust, Buzz Aldrin--I'm not interested in hearing about your life in a story if you don't know how to properly present it. I don't want to read your diary; I want a story.

    As Picasso said, art is a lie that tells us the truth.
     
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  8. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Better yet,

    Use your imagination. Trust me, your lives are not interesting. Don't write them down.
    - W. B. Kinsella
     
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  9. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    I've started stories with themes in mind. The Worms of Wicher-Woo started with a theme -a kinda artistic ownership thing. But after I started actually writing the story more themes began showing up - friendship, ego, forgiveness. I try to be really flexible when starting with a theme. I don't want to get so focused on trying to weave it through the story that I ignore other themes. Or crafting good scenes that may not have anything to do with that particular theme or that don't consciously have anything to do the with the theme. I didn't know where I was going when Tetty in TWOWW created a sock puppet in the story but then it tied in so well with the original theme. Sometimes letting go, letting my subconscious take the reigns helps the themes tie together better than I could ever organize it.

    I usually don't start with a theme. When I started Not Pink ( a robot story ), I had no theme in mind. Which is why it's a little loose and not tied together as well as TWOWW. In fact this is usually what I do, but it can be kinda time consuming. I usually write a first draft in order to discover why I'm writing it - to find the themes, so I can bring them out in the second draft. Themes can be put in consciously - if your character is avenging his shot dog a revenge theme is pretty obvious because it's tied up in the plot. But some themes can emerge more unconsciously. Say the man doing the avenging has always felt small and insignificant. His revenge is tied up with feelings of power which adds another theme and takes the story to a deeper level.

    When looking for the signs of a possible theme I pay close attention to the characters. Usually it's tied up with the characters. Not always the mc sometimes a side character can do or say something that pops out at you. Right now as I'm going over my robot story looking for possible themes I've found/noticed a few I'd like to explore. One was a conversation the robot has with another robot about their barriers between the humans, the other has to do with actions the robot makes which brings the matter of control into mind. Of course both themes feel a little broad and I'm trying to shape them into a more concrete thought like - is taking control instinctive or learned.
     
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  10. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    OK, this I can understand. This is a very helpful perspective. Thank you for sharing.
     
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  11. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    Hence the "stylized biography" comment.
     
  12. lustrousonion
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    lustrousonion Contributing Member

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    I see that sentence. I also see others saying you don't always think about themes and that a writer doesn't necessarily need to think about themes. I disagree with this. Maybe we're dancing around terms here, but style isn't the same as theme, and I generally like to have both.
     
  13. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    Interesting thoughts here, Nilfry. Probably why I don't like settling on just one theme - it's not true to real life. As for what the reader/audience sees I'm not so concerned about that. I know I only have so much control over what they see without being didactic. Themes are like bones you can't see them but you know something is holding the body up.

    I think however by making the theme too noticeable you can blow it. Fatal Attraction tries to go the Don't cheat on your wife route. But it backfires. Every man in the audience knows the probability of choosing a psycho to have an affair with is a one in a million shot. And by the end of the movie the woman is eliminated, the wife so grateful that she's forgiven him and the only casualty is the bunny. The theme is actually subverted but the action.
    I think though if the writer doesn't recognize what's going on he can lose the theme. I thought Fatal Attraction had a much better theme that was ignored - What is a man's responsibility to a mistress. For me books need to be shaped or they're just literary ramblings or junky entertainment.
     
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  14. Hwaigon
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    Hwaigon Contributing Member Reviewer

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    King once said the same. Though being of some relevance and point, the phrase has a bit of lofty air about it.
    It is also runs counter to the idea of making one's ordinary life an act of heroism, which it may well turn into, not necessarily under dire circumstances.
     
  15. Nilfiry
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    Nilfiry Contributing Member

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    I would like to think that if a writer does not recognize what he or she is writing, then that is an entirely different problem.
     
  16. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes, the only theme in Lost was the theme of trying to screw every last penny out of an idea that had run its course.
     
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  17. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    Fatal Attraction's theme, perhaps unintended, was a man can fuck up as much as he wants as long as he protects his family. Very 80's-ish in light of the events and attitudes of the time.
     
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  18. Ms. DiAnonyma
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    Ms. DiAnonyma Active Member

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    I personally think being conscious of your theme helps, but not being aware doesn't acutally mean there isn't one. If its a really compelling story, it has one (probably more), whether you want it to or not, but it might have entered more subliminally. Maybe that makes it more subtle for the reader, maybe not, depending on the writer/their writing...
    However... if you're having trouble with where you're supposed to go next with a story, figuring out and understanding the theme is probably the biggest thing. I have a feeling that if you're just writing for fun, and not analyzing your work for themes, it'll a) take longer, (which maybe you're just ok with because you like writing) and b) will be less structured...
     
  19. Boger
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    Boger Contributing Member

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    You just named part of the reasons why I dislike series and flicks in general. It's part of the reason why I do things on my own.

    More on topic: I pay attention to what I take from themes and genres when I write. I guess that's a weakness; creating tensions that are not as direct as you might want them to be and overall too much left to the suggestion. My short stories would be very doubtful in effectiveness if your concept of what I portray is not clearly defined, in other words... I would most likely not be a great gateway writer for general themes and major genres. Please excuse me for taking "genre" and "theme" in to such a close connection, but themes and genres affect me in a similar way. And also leaves my readers at a blank, I guess.

    (More suspense for progress journal entails)
     
  20. Bryan Romer
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    Bryan Romer Contributing Member Contributor

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    As someone else said, it may be just semantics, but I see a theme as a philosophical concept, the lust for power, revenge, sexual obsession. I do not write stories designed to demonstrate such concepts. My stories are plot based and the various drives and obsessions of each character play out as they react to the events in the storyline. This is opposed to tailoring the entire flow of events in order to illustrate a theme.
     
  21. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    I would say that these are more base motivations than philosophical concepts. Semantics again though.
     
  22. Renee J
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    Renee J Contributing Member

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    I think as long as you have a plot with a goal and ending and you have characters that develop as consequences of their actions, a theme will develop. I agree that only having a vague idea can lead to trouble. But, on the other hand, having a theme up front could lead to it being heavy handed or preachy if you aren't careful. (Or am I confusing a story's moral with it's theme? I didn't really study literature.)
     
  23. Siena
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    Siena Active Member

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    I agree that theme is the point of the story.

    But I disagree with your interpretation of Breaking Bad and Lost - each episode had a theme, as well as the overall series.
     
  24. Chinspinner
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    Chinspinner Contributing Member Contributor

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    TV is also a difficult comparison as its structure is dictated by advertisement breaks and pulling people back to a weekly time slot.
     
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  25. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Aye, this be true enough. The last set of books I read were clearly about communication as an underlying, recurring theme. The plot was about an area of the S.E. coast of the U.S. where it seems an alien invasion might or might be taking place and the people investigating and getting sucked into what is happening, but that's just the plot, the things that happen. The story was clearly about communication.
     

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