Conventional advice on how to write better fiction dwells on those well-worn items, character and plot. We’re supposed to have ‘fully developed characters’ (whatever that means) and ‘intriguing plots’ (‘intriguing’ is left intriguingly undefined) in order to grab reader attention and hold it to the end of a tale. Most advice concentrates on the linearity of story telling — one scene after another — and the various structures and patterns which emerge from that: three acts, climaxes, Hero’s Journeys and all the rest of it. The product of all that is a set of maxims about constructing a ‘flat’ narrative.
But readers are in fact seeking something deeper.
There were many science fiction serials created in the 1960s, for example, but most of them were ‘flat’ — i.e. they consisted of linear narratives, usually involving a ‘good’ protagonist who progressed through a series of external challenges, cliffhanger by cliffhanger, before achieving his ends (and it was always a ‘he’ too). We may have been entertained by them briefly — linear narratives do after all contain some attractive potential and yield a little emotional satisfaction — but they have faded from memory and now are only valued on sci-fi cult websites or in small fan groups. Two series from that period, on the other hand, went on to spawn show after show, including spin-offs: the creative wells from which they were drawn had enough depth to keep them alive for over fifty years and counting. I’m talking about the American TV series Star Trek and the British TV series Doctor Who.
What differentiates these two from the rest? Depth; theme; connections; resonance. Star Trek picked up on social issues at the time and portrayed them on screen in new ways, using metaphor and image, plus they had more interesting and three-dimensional storylines in which the protagonist wasn’t always ‘good’ and the villain not always ‘bad’; Doctor Who began with a protagonist who at first acted like a villain and diverged from the simple straightforward narrative by jumping from location to location through space and time, becoming involved in adventures which were not always as linear as they seemed. It seems inevitable now, with hindsight and a knowledge of how stories work, that both would survive and flourish, though at the time they were grouped with other shows and both suffered temporary cancellations due to ratings failures. In both cases, though, they bounced back and achieved even greater success than before, because when they were at their best they were tapping into that universal motherlode which all readers and viewers lust after:
Audiences want meaning. Yes, they want linear adventures and cliffhangers and all the rest of the excitement that a straightforward story can bring, but if that third dimension can be added in, then the creators can be assured that the work will live on and thrive.
Fiction provides meaning in disguise. It looks as though we are indulging in something superficial and linear, but often we imbibe things of more significance while doing so. Fiction — at least, successful fiction — draws from deeper wells than superficial ‘conscious/unconscious’ binary descriptives and reaches into the correspondingly deep part of readers’ consciousnesses. Classics, pieces of work which outlast one reading and linger on emotionally and spiritually for readers, do so because they possess thematic qualities of form.
So how do writers go about adding this, or supplementing it, or recognising and then elaborating upon it in their own works?
How does one build 'theme' into one’s stories?
Standard advice tells us that a story’s themes — its central meaning or set of meanings — are rooted in a lead character’s flaws and in the obstacles that keep that character from achieving his or her story goals. Thus, in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennett is flawed by her circumstances, being one of many sisters all seeking marriage in order to avoid financial ruin, and by her own willingness, perhaps, to listen to prejudice or to make hasty judgements about Darcy. The story’s theme of justice, the perils of pride and prejudice and social honour are portrayed as Elizabeth progresses through a series of linear adventures during which Austen, through her and through a set of other characters, displays for us the three-dimensional meanings of her novel. As we read of the Bennett family’s troubles, it is the dialogue, descriptions of manners, and sensitivity of portrayal of characters that sets Austen’s novel apart: the linear ending is predictable (as are most linear endings) but the non-linear insights satisfy that craving for depth and meaning that we as readers possess.
It’s easy to see why conventional writing advisors see that we are being ‘taught’ about the novel’s meaning through its central character’s story arc — we are, but there is so much more to it. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy come to recognise their character flaws and take action to overcome them, which leads to their love coming to fruition — that’s their tale as characters and yes, it supports the theme. But it is through a host of other things that Austen moves her theme forward as well, until it claims the territory that lies deeper within us than character arcs: it is her comic revelations of shallowness through Mr. Collins, her hints at duplicity through her portrayal of Wickham, her battle with conformity through Elizabeth’s clashes with Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and her ironic making fun of stupidity and human relationships with her presentation of Mrs. Bennett that all accumulate to give us the novel as a rounded, three-dimensional whole — a work which cannot be summed up in analytical language alone any more than quantum physics can be explained through poetry alone.
Theme — the ‘quality of form’ which gives literature its ‘literariness’ — stems from the unity of thinking and feeling which are more primary and basic than the later or more superficial division into ‘analytical’ and ‘emotional’ categories.
What hope is there then for those of us who want to boost this ‘quality of form’ in our work?
Specifics are coming up next.