By Janet W. Butler
Have you discovered what your writing theme is? Notice I don’t ask what the theme of your work is. I ask what your own theme is.
There’s a difference.
Written works can contain myriad thematic material, of course. They can be metaphorical, symbolic, transcendent, spiritual, challenging, inspiring, enlightening...You get the idea. And we all had those assignments in school for which we read a piece of literature and were directed to discuss “themes,” compare and contrast, illustrate with examples, and the rest.
But I’m talking about something way more basic than that. Way beneath it, matter of fact. What you see when you peel away the layers of the onion to reveal a core essence beyond the surface, beyond any deliberate “themes” you’re trying to write about: the personal lens that illuminates your work.
I discovered mine early in my fiction writing career, and it can be summed up in one sentence: Things are not always what they appear to be.
Now, that sounds almost simplistic, doesn’t it? Almost too “obvious” to be a theme of any kind, for anything, except an elemental short story. Or, perhaps, an essay.
But that simple sentence is, in fact, the backbone of what I write. All the way from my very first short story, Number Twenty-Seven, in which a mysterious (haunted?) island beckoned to a surfer...and changed everything. Including what became of him. That high-school composition may have inadvertently been the first “write your own ending” story; I left the conclusion so vague that, when I finished reading it in front of the class, everyone asked, “What happened?”
To which I answered, “What do you think?” And my English teacher got a very pleased expression on her face.
Creative, it was. Conclusive, it wasn’t.
I entered that story in a contest. It didn’t win. (!) So, in the ensuing years, I have endeavored to know the ends of my stories and make them very clear, an approach that tends to work much better in the real world of publishing.
But my work is still based on the same sentence: Things are not always what they appear to be. This premise underpins my favorite stories—both my own and other authors’.
Wondering how this “theme” works? Let me give you examples from my own books.
In From the Ashes, concert pianist and composer James Michael Goodwin’s career isn’t what it appears to be—nor is he. So much so that, in the beginning of the book, he’s got a gun to his head. Because he’s tired of pretending through the pain. Then, as if by a miracle, he heals...rediscovers his muse...and falls in love. But even as that unfolds, another scenario is at work behind the scenes, one that propels James and his protégé and new love, Melody, into an almost terminal black moment.
In Voice of Innocence, everybody “knows” that charismatic college professor Lachlan MacAndrews is a user, an unhappily married man who illicitly led a younger woman on—and probably was responsible for her death. The problem is, what everybody “knows” ...isn’t true. Lachlan is something else entirely, living a nightmare brought about by a third party manipulating events and environment to construct a noose around his neck.
Those are just two examples of how, in my own writing, I’ve taken the idea that things are not what they appear to be, and from that premise spun entire new sides to characters, to what “looks like” the plot, to who “looks like” good guys or bad guys—and so forth.
The fun part about this “deceptive” theme is that it has infinite variations. Because in this wide world of ours, things are rarely (if ever) exactly, only what they appear to be at first glance. Or second. Or even fiftieth. We all experience this when we meet new people, or try new foods, or go new places, that we’re sure we’re not gonna like—and, instead, make lifelong friends, discover new culinary passions, or create memories of adventures we treasure forever.
Ergo, all I need to do to create a whole new story with this theme is to look at a situation— any situation—and flip it on its head. What if what your characters are seeing isn’t the reality? What if that “nice” character you’re creating isn’t the solicitous, helpful soul he or she appears to be—but has an agenda in mind for your hero’s doom? What if your heroine is in an intimate relationship—with someone who wants her dead?
And that’s just a jumping-off point. If you don’t want to write suspense, or sinister people, you can still use a “theme” like this for sweet, lighthearted stories. The popular “fish-out-of-water” trope comes to mind as such a variant, among others.
What take-away is here for you, then?
A suggestion: that if you don’t know your “theme song” already, sit down and think about what it might be. It could be an actual “song,” of course.
But I’d suspect it’s more likely a simple sentence, a simple premise, a simple lens through which you see your world—and through which you can then, with a little kaleidoscope-turn, make a surprise happen.
Or more than one surprise. Or a whole swackload of stories’ worth of them.
The best news of all? With even the simplest “theme song” as your basis, you still needn’t worry about repeating yourself. A really good theme is bare-bones, the basics, the frame, the foundation. What you build on it is still limited only by imagination. And we all know how limited that is!
So, don’t be shy. Think about it. You’ll know your “theme” when you find it, because a) you’ll see it play out as a pattern in your stories, and b) it will resonate within. Deliberately encouraging it to “flow” can open up your writing as never before and impart a wonderful sense of authenticity you’ll feel in your bones. And the joy of writing true-to-your-own-lens is the best way to make your own, unique literary “music.”