ymmv .21 – Theme
Theme is a tricky one. Hell, people have a hard time finding the theme of a work, they debate over it, ponder whether one exists at all, and sometimes it’s completely up to interpretation anyway. Sometimes a creator has no control over the themes read into their work, but I still believe they should send the work out with some idea of the theme/s they want to represent.
Though, me, I’ve never been able to plan theme first. I don’t go into a story saying to myself, “Oh, I’m going to write about marital problems today.”
My story brain just doesn’t work that way.
And Stephen King said it best in On Writing:
“I don’t see themes until the story’s done. Once it is, I’m able to kick back, read over what I’ve written, and look for underlying patterns. If I see some (and I almost always do), I can work at bringing them out in a second, more fully realized, draft of the story. Two examples of the sort of work second drafts were made for are symbolism and theme.
Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.”
This has always rung true for me, so I want to tackle this through a little ymmv talk therapy, if you’ll indulge me.
Most of us will naturally bring themes with us to the table. These are usually/often things we have spent our lives exposed to or dealing with. Especially initially, in the nascent creator, it’s rare that we will start off by analyzing a theme that’s totally foreign to us. They [the ethereal amorphous ‘they’] say you should write what you know. I’ve always taken that to mean theme. It doesn’t mean if you’re a lawyer that you have to only write law thrillers, or if you are a teacher who becomes a writer that all your leads should be white male teachers who become writers [or aspire to– which usually just means you are writing the old version of yourself]. I felt like it meant if you grew up poor that you should write about aspects of poverty– because you’ll understand that inherently a lot better than you will the struggle of affluenza.
This means your initial work is limited to your life experience, possibly, but that should be enough to draw upon to make you a better writer so you can then later become comfortable writing outside of your zone. Different characters, new worlds, alien themes. Cut your teeth on something you’ve lived through so you can bring truth to the page. Then, as you live more, experience more, and see more, you’ll have more to bring to the page later. You’ll also have the skills to observe and discuss and empathise and this should help you write about any theme with honesty.
But all of that is a career spanning concept, and sometimes you just have to consider the story first in front of you.
My process is, I pull the thread. I draw the story out into the world. I usually do this in my notebook. I start to make character notes, location notes, and then attempt to plot a narrative course– what are the main beats to chew through a five act story? A rough draft from start to finish is attempted, and completed if I’m lucky, then I invariably see the holes and have to redraft. But if I didn’t just write it down first I’d never see the opportunities, and the happy accidents wouldn’t occur.
So I have a skeleton outline and I poke at it, I ask myself questions in the margins, I give characters options for their next moves and see what they take– and see what the outcomes are for each path selected. It’s like playing a game of chess but you get omniscient control.
And yet by this stage I’ve still rarely touched upon theme. I’m just hammering the metal of the narrative chassis, there’s nothing under the hood driving it– though I am reserving space for something to come. It usually does.
So I map out the story, and it comes out good– after sometimes a dozen drafts, often times dropping the notebook to type it up because my brain will synthesise it as I transfer it to pixels, and sometimes I can only copy/paste elements so much that I write what’s in the latest file back into the notebook, to noodle in the margins and ask more questions, and then it gets typed up for reals in the end.
The story exists and I have a plan to make it.
But I’m still not always leaning on theme here. I’m ensuring the characters act in the right way to earn the plot beats I’ve laid out. I’m listening to the characters, I’m really starting to know them– which is why you always have to go back and edit those first pages heavily, you just didn’t have their voice ready yet. I usually find, if the characters are true, and I’ve explored them and not just moved them around the board, then the theme spills out from them, from their journey. Because as you analyse what they were after, and usually what their narrative barrier was, you’ll probably start to see your theme appear. If not, well, you will at the end. And it might not jump out at you so you’ll have to go digging. Please ensure you do, because if you forge on without the theme then you risk your story not actually being about anything.
And a story not really about anything is DOA every time. It’s someone taking out their toys and banging them together, it’s playtime, not art.
So analyse the key elements of choice your characters have to make in the story, analyse the fall out, and weigh up the stakes. Through this, you’ll see the theme start to poke through.
If I look at my work, my first major self-published work was the Fatherhood one-shot– with Daniel Schneider art, Paulina Ganucheau colours, and Brandon DeStefano letters, through Challenger Comics. It’s about, yep, fatherhood. The theme specifically is about the blind struggle of fatherhood, the thought about how far you’d go to please your kids, and if you could go too far. I wrote that script in the wake of having my first kid. I think I wrote a mental breakdown into the character so I wouldn’t have one. Because fatherhood is hard, it’s the sort of thing that cracks the baseplate of a man and can shatter all that’s built above. It’s the sort of thing that draws out great character drama, and as such is something I find fascinating to talk about as well as write about.
This work was very immediately accessible to me, and so it was very honest, and the work resonated with people across the globe. But I didn’t at first, not explicitly, know what I was writing about. The idea that came to me was; what if a father tried to get a doll for his daughter and he missed out and it just broke his already fragile psyche. Then we play that through a crime lens. So it starts off like Jingle All the Way but instead of becoming a very sub-par movie it turns into an issue of Criminal.
I wrote the fun stuff, the mob rule of the toy store sales crowd, the dad having a tyre iron fight in the rain to get the last doll. But as I got to the end, I saw the character stuff bubble right up and I knew what I was writing. Then I could edit around it.
Whereas my next major work was Headspace-– with art from Eric Zawadzki and Sebastian Piriz, colours from Eric Zawadzki, Marissa Louise and Dee Cunniffe, and letters by Eric, also, all through Monkeybrain Comics digitally and then picked up for trade by IDW.
This book stemmed from the idea of shrinking people to hide them in prisons shrunk down in the bodies of people to solve the problem of overpopulation in the penal system. It was Philip K Dick doing Inner Space. The story morphed over time collaborating with Zawadzki as we prepared to pitch it but even the end result is about Shane Garraty, a sheriff of a small town, who comes to realise he’s trapped in the mind of a killer and he doesn’t know how or why he’s in there, but he’s got to find a way out because the killer’s mind has noticed this incursion and is trying to wipe it out with manifestations of messed up thoughts, dreams, and memories.
It became John Carpenter adapting Philip K Dick. It’s dirty sci-fi and it was a blast to write.
Yet from that story description, the theme isn’t apparent. And it wasn’t at first. It was only as I wrote the book that I found the sheriff was divorced, and that he eventually discovers this killer murdered his son. So the book, very slowly, showed itself to me as being about responsibility, and the grey morality we attach to it.
Shane felt hollow because he failed the biggest responsibility he’d ever had, his child died. And as the story progresses, he realises he failed the next biggest responsibility, to support his wife, especially in that time of need. The seeds of responsibility are sown and so when we stopped making Shane Garraty’s narrative a race to freedom and swung him around to give him a quest for action we really brought that theme to the front. Headspace is most definitely not about survival, it’s about the choices we make based on the things we should do– and that requires unpacking that slippery ‘should’ aspect. It also gets flipped on its head with a reveal towards the end, but let’s not spoil what might lie in your reading future.
The point is, I did not come to the table with the theme. I didn’t even know I was arranging pieces to suit that theme, but things find their way out and this definitely wove its way into the narrative DNA and upon editing it was our job to make sure the theme meant something, it helped the arc of the characters, and we ended strongly in a way that leans into the theme and means something.
Negative Space, however, started with an image, a writer at his desk attempting to write his suicide note and getting writer’s block. From there, it’s easy to feel like the theme of depression and coping would be up the front, and when I started writing the series I could feel that analysis of melancholia and suicide right in the text for all to see. It’s obvious, and could be easy, and it definitely is present. Given that I don’t suffer from depression, it was nice to write outside of my head [though as I tell people, to a hearty chuckle to hide the truth, I do hate myself a lot, but I’m writer so that’s just part of the job description], and yet I felt I could tackle the subject matter with honesty because my father committed suicide when I was very young and so it’s a topic I’ve committed a lot of thought to. Though, I did once say to a woman at a con that “I’ve thought about suicide a lot.” And she gave me a startled look and I had to pause and hear myself and then quickly add, “I mean, it’s a topic I’ve kind of studied, not contemplated.”
If you thinking writing theme is hard, try discussing it on the con floor with any nuance or delicacy.
Anyway, so I took the emotional core of suicidal depression into NegSpace because it’s central to the main character, and it’s something I feel can be addressed with importance in fiction. But for me, theme is often about change and the LAST thing I wanted to do with this book was cure Guy’s depression. Especially when it’s escalated to suicidal ideations. If I write a story where Guy saves the day and wins the hand of the guy he likes and that suddenly makes him happy and he gets to live amidst floating rainbows and unicorn asses for the rest of his days, well, there’s little honesty in that. I know depression can be beaten, and people survive daily [thank god], but it felt cheap to have suicidal tendencies be a shorthand for a character’s inner turmoil and then we just cure him right up by the end of issue #4. I was very firm, from the start, that this comic was not about ‘fixing’ Guy’s disease.
Having that idea at the forefront helped me see my true theme of the book– acceptance.
And I mean that word in every slumped shoulder way you can imagine. It’s a story about how we bend to the whims of a world that doesn’t care, about how we consider the greater good and resign ourselves to it as an omnipresent machine and we an invisible cog within it, and it’s about how we make little acceptances every day and how they slowly erase us.
Guy accepted his life, and the people who work for the villainous Kindred Corp accept their role in keeping the Evorah monsters off land and well fed with artifacts that represent, and hold, depression within them.
The book is a study of what we choose to accept and why and what that means to us, as well as those around us.
Once I found that theme, more pieces of the book made sense to me. But I didn’t find that theme until late, because you assume that depression is the theme when it’s really just a symptom of the true theme.
Moving forward, I’ve got CHUM from ComixTribe, with Sami Kivela art, Mark Dale colours, and Nic J. Shaw letters, and it’s a surf noir pulp crime tale, and yet it’s about desire, and survival. How we continue to work towards that perfect dream we think we want and need, but also how we force ourselves to live towards it and through wherever that takes us.
My Deer Editor series with Sami Kivela again, and Shaw rejoining us on letters, started life as a stupid Twitter typo gag. But then a character grew, and from that a story inspired by Chinatown grew, and then as I wrote it all, I realised the book is about focus, and how it blinds you. And once I knew that, it explained so much of our titular character, Bucky, and it allowed me to rewrite him more effectively, and then it also opened up the world and where the story could go beyond the debut issue. Our lead has focus and because of it he misses a lot of other things. Which could also be taken as a read on modern journalism.
For me, the biggest thing about theme is that it enriches the work. It explains the characters and their choices better, it serves a higher purpose than just structuring acts with the formulaic ‘right stuff.’
Theme often means heart– whether it’s about finding one, breaking one, or eating one. It’s the core of the piece and that’ll mean it’s hidden, but it’s also making everything else work right.
Ryan K. Lindsay is a comics writer who has logged time at Dark Horse, Monkeybrain, Vertigo and other esteemed publishers. He currently writes Negative Space, a comic we here at Loser City love quite a bit. You can (and should) pick Negative Space up from your local comic shop or directly through Dark Horse.