Such a lot of the emphasis about ‘succeeding’ as a writer these days is on the marketing aspect. Many writers, probably the majority, believe that their failure to be instant overnight successes lies in the field of marketing: they’ve written something, they’ve published or self-published it, and nothing has happened — it must be because there is something missing in the marketing.
Of course there are a lot of misunderstandings about marketing and I’ve written extensively about that elsewhere — but the primary error in this thinking is that for a book to succeed, it must first have certain things in place which are guaranteed to attract the attention of readers. That comes before marketing.
No point advertising and delivering a pizza which is made of cardboard — if you want to make a success of the pizza business, the first thing to do is make sure that you make a good pizza.
It’s the same with fiction: if you want to succeed as an author, write lots of good stories. And by good stories, I mean —as we have been learning — stories with thematic elements.
Identifying Your Own Thematic Elements
‘But I just write stuff!’ say many of you at this point. ‘I don’t know anything about “theme”.’
In the last article in this series, I gave examples of the most powerful and the most common themes to be found in fiction: Survival, Peace and War, Love, Good and Evil are just a few of the themes that are out there. Racism, Injustice, Human Folly, Ambition, Pride — the list is potentially endless, except that it is defined somewhat by the human condition. Readers are interested in the Big Picture, whether they consciously admit it or not. If you write a story the theme of which is ‘What happens to rice puddings on Mars?’ chances are you won’t get a lot of interest unless your real theme is Humour, or you have found a way of making Martian rice puddings metaphorical.
To take this out of the realms of theory and give you some practical ways forward, step back from your existing fiction and ask yourself ‘What are my stories actually about?’ Let’s say you’ve written a story about a despairing man whose life seems meaningless. One night, driving home, he has an accident and kills an animal. End of story. On the surface, it’s ‘about’ the man, his sad life and his encounter with a beast on the road. But thematically it’s ‘about’ the relationship between that encounter and what it means for his life as a whole. There’s meaning there, you see. The animal he runs over becomes a metaphor for his life. Maybe he learns from it; maybe he doesn’t. That depends on your message, which we’ll discuss in a moment. But the story, simple in itself, already has ‘theme’ built in.
Readers are looking for meaning; whether they know it or not, they are starved of Theme. The same applies to editors and publishers, who see a lot of material which is devoid of theme — stories which are just ‘Then this happened, then this happened…’ type tales, relating incidents — perhaps relating them quite well — but lacking in thematic content, metaphors, images, things that resonate deeper, wider, broader than they might seem to at first glance. A reader can sniff out theme better than a dog sniffs out a bone, and so can an editor and publisher.
So the first useful thing you can do is sniff out the themes in your existing fiction. What are they? Don’t even think about what you are trying to say about those themes yet — that’s your ‘message’ and comes up later. Right now, just step back and see if you can see any thematic elements in your fiction that perhaps you weren’t aware of before.
Written a sci-fi epic about alien invasion? Perhaps your theme touches on paranoia or human togetherness or maybe it’s even really ‘about’ Love…
Penned a fantasy adventure? Perhaps it has elements of a struggle for survival, or is a study of warfare, or maybe hints at something spiritual…
Put together a family saga? Perhaps hidden between the drama of the individual characters is an examination of human nature, or art, or modern life…
Here’s the maxim:
The degree to which your fiction incorporates thematic elements is the direct measure of how appealing it will be to readers and editors.
What are you saying through your theme? What’s your ‘message’? We’ll look at that next…