There is probably more than one theme, then, in any piece of any length written by a writer who more or less knows the basics of writing.
When we start writing as children, our stories are very much of the ‘Then this happened, then this happened…’ variety. The string of events doesn’t have to make sense or have any sense of connection or shape: it’s ‘just a story’.
In a reduced form, you can see this in the way that very young children start to understand humour. My young daughter wore a T-shirt for a while which stated ‘Hand over the chocolate and no one gets hurt’. She perceived that people found the caption funny, so made up some of her own: ‘Hand over the chocolate and a friend comes to your house!’ ‘Hand over the chocolate and there’s a giraffe!’ and so on, many more one liners of the same ilk. What made this amusing was that she would burst into ecstatic laughter at the end of each one, as though she had just delivered the funniest line imaginable. The fact that there was no connection between the beginning and the end of the ‘joke’ was something that had completely eluded her — which of course made it funny in a different way.
Expand on that, and you get the most primitive form of narrative, based on the question ‘What happens next?’ This sort of story possesses forward motion only — a momentum which pulls readers onward based on that simple vacuum of not knowing what will happen next. But reading fiction of this kind can be wearing — in the end, one can’t escape the impression that it is leading nowhere. Writing it has similar difficulties — writers often ‘run out of steam’ and the tale is never completed. It’s possible that 95% of attempted fiction comes to a halt because it is only driven forward in this way. The only connection between the event being narrated is that it comes after the event previously narrated: linear fiction.
In continuing tales of this kind — for example, television soap operas —events have to become more melodramatic in order to try to hold an audience’s attention, and two-dimensional tropes flourish as writer desperation grows. Characters become shallower; situations become more ludicrous; plots twist until they become tangled messes.
A story which only moves forward is self-evidently two-dimensional. To gain shape, reader credibility and longevity, it needs meaning and ‘quality of form’. The ‘Then this happened…’ bits have to be seen to fit together into some kind of pattern other than a sequential one. Motifs, images, symbolism, pathetic fallacy, personification and all the rest of the paraphernalia of literary fiction need to make an appearance in some way, even if only slight. ‘Then this happened…’ evolves into ‘Then this happened because…’ or ‘Then this happened, similar to the way that that happened…’ Linkages develop; the thing steps out of a two-dimensional frame and becomes three-dimensional.
This can happen in short stories and even flash fiction — it doesn’t depend on length, though obviously a longer story has time to develop and connect more things within it. But how does it work? Do you write a story and then try and inject ‘theme’ into it? It can operate that way, which is what we will look at in a moment — but the best way, the way which ensures that your work will become valued as literature, is to begin with the theme and write the story around that.
Often, it’s not easy to separate ‘story’ from ‘theme’. For example, take a short Christmas tale about a miserly old man who encounters three ghosts who convince him to redeem himself and become generous and charitable. You might recognise that outline as the tale A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Dickens probably began with an idea of writing a story about Redemption: the chief character, Scrooge, probably materialised early on, and everything else would then have fallen into orbit around him. The tale and the theme are so interconnected that they cannot be prised apart.
But as another example, take C. S. Lewis’s children’s classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It began, says Lewis, as a series of disconnected images, dreamlike, including a lamppost in a wood and a faun, a creature from Greek myth, carrying an umbrella and parcels. In other words, pure story images appeared first. But then, Lewis explains, into it all leapt Aslan, who pulled everything together. Aslan, the Christ-figure in the story, then made the narrative into a series of episodes about something, rather than just a series of episodes.
Usually, in the works of fiction which have been submitted to me over the last couple of years, the process clearly starts at the story end of the spectrum: writers, aware or unaware of what they are doing, simply write down a series of episodes and hope that those bits connect together in some meaningful way. They then either present them to me and to other potential publishers in the extended hope that others will be able to see meaning in the work; or they recognise that more could be done and seek to inject meaning, add thematic elements, into the piece, making it more three-dimensional.
There’s a mystery here, or something which defies our usual modes of explanation, in that, if a writer has been serious about writing and is in any mature way in contact with his or her imagination, thematic elements will be present in the work whether or not he or she was conscious of them at the time of writing. In other words, a trained editor can spot connections, dimensions and resonances in the work which the writer ‘never put there’ consciously. I say this defies our ‘usual’ modes of explanation, but an earlier article in this series touched on the underlying reason why: when we write fiction, we are tapping into a method of communicating which stems from a time or place in our imaginations before any artificial divisions were introduced. To put this another way, when we write a story, what we would normally compartment into ‘story’ elements (the ‘Then this happened…’ bits) and thematic elements (the ‘What does this really mean?’ bits) are not compartmented — they are working together to produce this magical thing called ‘fiction’.
Having produced the magical thing, we visit it as readers and sometimes read it in a divided, compartmented mode, seeing it as ‘story’ and, if we are looking for it, ‘theme’. The writing was primal and brought forth something before or beyond such categorisations; but the reading sometimes descends into categorisation mode and attempts to see differences between the two kinds of component. Effective fiction - successful fiction - transcends such categorisations. That's what makes it effective.
When you write a piece of fiction, in other words, you are using a part of yourself which goes deeper than superficial ‘conscious/unconscious’ binary descriptives that our culture is built upon. When a reader reads a piece of fiction, on the surface he or she sometimes looks at it through the binary spectacles provided by the surrounding culture — but if it is effectively written, it reaches beyond those spectacles into that reader’s non-binary heart. The result is that you have a classic, or at least a piece of work which outlasts any immediate reading and lingers on emotionally and even spiritually for the reader.
More on this vital subject soon.