We have established — or rather, asserted, as I am aware that there may be disagreements with this — that a primary reason why certain stories are accepted by major publishers is because they are more ‘literary’. This means, in this sense, that rather than the piece of fiction being simply ‘about’ the events described in a story or a rearrangement of familiar conventions as might be the case in genre fiction, the work tends to extend beyond those mere events and conventions and reaches out to more universal ideas, thus appealing not only to more readers generally but in particular to editors and publishers trained the background of literature.
So, for example, E. M. Forster’s novel A Passage to India tells the tale of Adela Quested and her encounters with Indian culture during the time of the British Raj. In the hands of a lesser author, this might have been a two-dimensional and perhaps even squalid story of race relations — but in Forster’s hands the whole ‘British Raj in India’ motif becomes a metaphor for something bigger and more universal. By the time the end of the novel is reached, it’s clear that it is ‘about’ a question as large as the meaning of Life. Thus Forster's novel is widely regarded as a great work.
This thematic element in fiction, then, is what particularly appeals to decision makers like the readers of books in major publishing houses, as consciously or unconsciously it tends to lead them to select such works above those which are shallower, more basic and lacking in this kind of thematic quality.
This also reflects popularity with readers. By actual test, the winning tales in the Clarendon House anthology competitions have been not only technically well-presented but have possessed thematic elements — i.e. elements which held some kind of appeal beyond the confines of the events of the story being related.
It applies across literature:
You can tell the story of a bunch of boys stuck on a desert island, for instance, and have it turn into a Boy’s Own adventure story — or you can explore universal themes of isolation, anguish and meaning and come up with the classic Lord of the Flies.
You can write a trite tale of love, loss and betrayal on the Yorkshire Moors and end up with a soap opera, or you can touch upon the rawness that lies behind human passion and produce the eternal bestseller Wuthering Heights.
You can tell a ‘rags to riches’ story and end up with a two-dimensional cartoon or bring in wider themes of unrequited love and lust and end up with Great Expectations.
But how exactly do you ‘add’ theme to an existing story?
It’s not as simple as just adding sugar to coffee to make it sweeter — and yet it’s not a total mystery either.
Ray Bradbury put it concisely:
‘I've grown up on a diet of metaphors. If young writers would find those writers who can give them metaphors by the bushel and the peck, then they'll become better writers — to learn how to capsualize things and present them in metaphorical form.’
You have to think metaphorically.
What does that mean and how do you do it?
Well, the truth is that, if you are a writer you are probably already doing it to some extent. It’s a mental muscle or way of seeing which some writers use all the time without realising it while others have yet to become fully aware that it is there. It’s probably the thing that lies behind your desire to write in the first place.
Look at it this way: if you want to walk around with a notepad and pen and simply write down what’s happening around you, anecdotes you hear, what you see and overhear in restaurants and so forth, you are fulfilling a kind of journalistic impulse which is part of writing. Many of the stories that have been submitted to me recently have been of this kind: they simply relate an event. They can do it very well, so that the reader feels that he or she is really there and that whatever is occurring in the story is happening to them, and that’s one level of writing and an important skill. But when the writer activates his or her ‘meta-vision’, the fiction takes on a whole different dimension. The events being related assume a quality beyond themselves — they become metaphorical.
Take for example Chapter 7 of Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale for children, The Wind in the Willows. On the surface, it’s about the characters Mole and Rat looking for a missing baby otter and encountering the animal god, Pan. It could have been told like a thin adventure tale and left at that — but here’s an excerpt:
But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can re-capture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its penalties; so Mole, after struggling with his memory for a brief space, shook his head sadly and followed the Rat.
Grahame explicitly uses simile here to draw the reader out of what could have been simply one character’s perspective and make it something much bigger: 'As one wakened suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and can re-capture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the beauty!' Any reader who has had a similar experience is thus glued to Mole’s particular experience — and this, added up over the whole tale, results in a long-lasting children’s classic which is about much more than the adventures of a few anthropomorphised animals on a riverbank.
There is actually a process involved here. You can take a shallow tale which just claims to be ‘about’ what it says it’s about on the surface, and you can ‘thematise’ it and make it into a wholly different, and much more powerful piece.