Narrative core-blimey 2 – Theme

Apologies for the late post, friends – Saturday night was my buck’s party, and after being plied with videogame-themed cocktails for several hours at The Mana Bar, I was left in pretty rough shape on Sunday. Writing, forming coherent thoughts and sitting in one place doing nothing all proved… difficult.

So what were we talking about? Oh, yeah.


When you describe what your narrative is about in terms of theme, you can end up with statements that are vague and non-specific:

  • ‘It’s about how the concept of secret societies have more power than secret societies themselves’
  • ‘It’s about failure and how embracing it can have a power of its own’
  • ‘It’s about the death of the American Dream’
Oh Google Image Search, I wish I could quit you

The thing about those is that they while they’re accurate summations of three of my favourite novels, they tell you pretty much nothing about what happens in those novels or indeed what those novels actually are. (Any guesses?) Which isn’t surprising, because it’s an attempt to describe the core meaning of a narrative, and meaning isn’t concrete. Premise is anchored in tangibles, or at least as tangible as imaginary things can be; if you put a ninja or a Dalek or a ninja Dalek in your story, every reader will agree that that’s what it is. But if your work is based in a theme, that means you’re focusing on subtext instead of text, and everyone reads subtext differently, and the theme you think is strongly evident could be invisible to your readers.

Another notable difference about describing narratives in terms of theme first is that you decouple meaning from plot and character and make it the major element. That seems obvious, but think about what it implies – by putting theme first, you’re saying that that’s the reason people should read the book, and that the plot and characters are (to some extent) less important. And on the whole, people don’t read like that; they enjoy reading books about interesting characters in interesting situations, rather than going to the bookstore and asking the staff if they have any novels about failure. They may, in the end, enjoy a thematically-focused book more than a premise-focused book because the material is more intellectually and emotionally meaningful, but first they’ve got to actually bother reading it. Themes carry weight, but they are blunt hooks.

I think that on the whole theme is tougher to work with than premise, because you write from a premise but towards a theme. With a premise, story elements emerge from the core concept, and then you hook them into the narrative as needed. With a theme, though, your first question is not ‘what could happen in this scene’ but ‘what meaning should this scene have’? That becomes a target that you work towards, but you’ve got to come up with the story elements that communicate that meaning yourself. That can be tough; it’s the number one stumbling block I have with Arcadia, where I have a great set of plans about theme and meaning but often flail about trying to work out what actually happens in each chapter.

And last, of course, a strong theme is really no better promise of a good book than a strong premise. Neither of them guarantees good writing, and there are many turgid or glib literary novels bursting with themes that can’t save them from being shit books. All other things being equal, it’s perhaps fair to say that if you have the skills to communicate a strong theme effectively through your work’s subtext, you’ve probably got the skills to write a good book in the process. If all other things are equal. Which would certainly make my day job of editing maths textbooks a bit easier.

The Verdict

So what should you focus on in your work – theme or premise?


Well, the right answer is the least helpful one – focus on the one that works for you. This isn’t a box you click in Word at the start of the writing process that helpfully throws up a talking paperclip whenever you go off target. When you get struck by inspiration, that almost always comes as either a premise you want to expand or a theme you want to explore. You know what you want to write and what interests you, and trying to go a different direction, while certainly a worthwhile exercise, is something you have to want to do, not something you do because you think you should. Fuck should. Write what excites you and from/towards the place that excites you.

That said… on the whole I tend to come at things a lot from theme. Not just theme; it’s hard to simply decide ‘I want to write about failure’ and then see what comes to mind. Themes tend to come wrapped around a kernal of premise, just as premises often (perhaps not always) are swaddled in sticky filaments of theme. But still, I find it hard to get really interested in an idea until a strong meaning attaches itself, because I prefer to read/write stories that say something underneath the scenes of hot Dalek-on-Dalek action. (And no, I’m not Googling for that, because I’m pretty sure I’d find it.)

But a good theme is hard work to explore, and like I said, I’m finding Arcadia a handful because the premise is vaguer than the meaning it supports. I need to develop that further – because, in the end, the strongest works are those that have both a premise and a theme. It’s the best of both worlds (not getting an image for that either) – concrete elements that embed in the text and put roots into the subtext, with story events interacting with deeper meaning. That’s the narrative Holy Grail for me; an exciting, engaging story that leaves you a tiny bit wiser at the end of it. It’s what Wolfe achieved with The Book of the New Sun, what Marquez did with One Hundred Years of Solitude, what Grant Morrison almost managed to do with The Invisibles – and fuck it, if you’re going to aim high, aim as high as you can, right?

Interestingly, ‘the search for the Holy Grail’ works as both a premise and a theme. Don’t say I never give you anything.

Anyway, that’s enough on that topic for the moment. I hope it was interesting, maybe even useful, although I suspect it wasn’t concrete enough for that. I might come back to this topic another time and see if I can give more definite discussion, maybe workshopping an idea to find both premise and theme to back it up.

Or I might just talk more about Dalek sex. That’ll drive up the pageviews.

Next weekend, though – angry ranty polemic time is back. Save the date.

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