The Complete Writer
Part V. Writing Fiction
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Theme and Symbol
When you’re writing fiction, theme is crucial, as we all know. Theme is what your story is about. Not the action, not the plotline, but what the story signifies—its overall meaning or message.
Not all stories can be said to have a “meaning” in some deep, artsy way. Genre fiction often exists to amuse, and so its authors can get away with recycling canned plot lines and characters developed in previous novels. But in my never-too-humble opinion, a genre novel that is just a reiteration of some canned theme is not very good reading. The best genre fiction, like the fiction we regard as “literature,” is trying to tell us something.
Think of your favorite genre fiction. These days I spend a great deal of time watching Poirot and Murdoch, themselves latter-day spinoffs of my hero Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. On the surface, they’re just detective stories. Their characterization makes them interesting. But below the surface, they all have thematic currents that carry over from story to story and that keep us coming back.
In any detective story, as we know, there’s the underlying theme of good vs. evil. In Sherlock Holmes we can discern a number of themes, one of them the power of science and intellect to combat evil. We see the same theme arise in the Murdoch mysteries, but there it’s combined with a pattern of frustrated love. Murdoch also represents the efforts of gifted women to escape societal oppression, a theme that recurs frequently throughout the series. In Poirot, the strangeness of the protagonist is just a thread in the thematic strangeness of the culture in which he moves—our culture, heaven help us!
So, what is your story about?
The first installment of my post-apocalyptic series, Fire-Rider, developed around the protagonist’s weariness with his people’s endless wars and his growing sense that much of what he has devoted his life to—revenge, disruption, and an allegedly infallible religion—is simply wrong. This theme couples with his famed wiliness—the character echoes Odysseus in a number of aspects—which can verge into duplicity when he uses it among his own people to get his way.
The second theme—duplicity and deceit—resurfaces in Book II, where it elides with issues of sin, error, and forgiveness. The second book’s theme suggests that if you really want to be macho, you must learn to forgive.
It’s tricky to weave these threads into a book-length work without shoving them in the reader’s face and without making them look forced. By and large, some hint of the theme, shown in action or setting, needs to appear early on, maybe even in the first few paragraphs. But it’s something that needs to be shown, not lectured about: for that reason one should avoid presenting any direct exposition of the theme in dialogue or narrative. At least, so I think.
Rules, as we know, are made to be broken . . . though probably that should not even be thought of as a “rule.” It’s just one scribbler’s opinion.
Fire-Rider opens with a group of characters expressing sentiments exactly the opposite of the theme represented by the protagonist’s experience. The first two and a half pages show comrades in arms celebrating their triumph over an enemy city that they have breached, sacked, and burned. Not until this scene is firmly set and action has begun does a suggestion of the protagonist’s troubled heart appear:
[Kaybrel, his fierce young sidekick Fallon, and his cousin Mitch] stood taking in the view, the torched city a roaring, gaudy backdrop to the activity on the plain before it.
“Must do your heart good,” Fal said to Kay.
“You bet,” Kay said.
But his eyes said something else, Fal saw, the expression gray and pensive, far from the unrestrained joy Fallon would have felt had he stood in Kay’s boots. Tired, maybe: the fight was hard-won, and Kay and Fal had put themselves at the front line.
As for Kay, the man of the moment: What was he feeling? The smoky breeze combed his grizzled beard and hair like the hand of a woman who had been working by the kitchen hearth. He thought of Maire and the child. When he looked at the devastation below him, he did not, could not think of bygone sorrow or of the years spread out between past loss and present victory. Instead, he thought of going home.
The narrative touches on this and then moves on. Over the course of the entire novel, Kaybrel’s weariness and nausée develop thematically. But a little at a time.
Theme is something the readers need to discern and interpret on their own. It should never be fed to them.
One tool you can use to help the reader do those things is symbolism: a concrete image that represents something abstract—an idea, a theme, a psychological concern, a cultural current, or the like. Ernest Hemingway infuses his stories with symbolism; I can’t recall a place in any of his stories where he explicitly reveals the theme in so many words. Interestingly, he denied any guilt in this line. But if you and I could deploy imagery the way Hemingway did, we’d all be living on our yachts and punctuating our writing stints with drinking and deep-sea fishing.
One of my authors, who has just begun to explore the finer points of writing fiction, wants to develop two symbols to present a long novel’s main theme. One—the sound of an ethnic musical instrument—was an afterthought. It leaps to the fore as the novel rises toward its climax, but because we’ve never heard of it before, it jars.
I suggested that, on rewrite, he should introduce the musical tradition’s sounds and sights early on, with at least a mention in the first chapter and then recurring appearances as the story grows. A few months later he came forth with a chapter, imbued with magical realism, in which the protagonist encounters the tradition as a young boy. From there the author builds the image into the narrative until it becomes thematically symbolic.
Theme is crucial to good fiction. Symbol is a tool you can use to point to theme. And to use either of them, show, don’t tell!