So this month at YAvengers we’re being organised folks who are talking about decisions to make before you write. Point of view, tense, yada yada. I get it. It’s important. But hey, it’s not exactly the most interesting part of writing is it? And if you’re anything like me, you probably already have a vague idea of how you want to tell the story because you’ve got a scene or two in your head and there are words floating around and yeah, you know what you’re doing.
JARVIS likes projecting words everywhere, so I may be getting confused, but I’m pretty sure that’s how writing works.
I’m going to talk about considering the theme and messages of your novel. You may not think that’s something to do before you start, but trust me, your future self will thank you. It’ll also make outlining / plotting easier, and with any luck, it might just help you make some of the other decisions more easily, particularly things like tense.
The message of the novel: sounds fairly self-explanatory. What are you trying to say? With dystopia this is very often a criticism of our own society, but there are variations. Maybe what the novel’s saying is if we don’t do something about climate change soon, we’ll end up losing half the population to rising sea levels. Or maybe what it’s saying is our media obsession with death and gore is going to lead us to watch people die on live TV. Who knows?
So the message is kind of the point you’re making. It’s often easier to pick out in stuff like dystopia, because they’re much more obvious about it. They’re pointing something out about our society, so that’s usually going to be central to the message.
But themes? Well, they’re often misunderstood, so my definition here’s gonna be if a high schooler was writing an essay on your novel, what would they be looking at? Picking out a couple of examples, “class” and “social position” in The Great Gatsby or “religion” in Tess of the d’Urbervilles are astonishingly overdone in essays, but at least you know what you’re talking about.
And this is where it gets interesting. Once you start thinking about the themes (and I really do find it helps to think about people writing essays on it, so if you want to try thinking up some essay titles, that can help prompt questions about what’s really important to the book you’re writing), you can make other decisions from a more informed position.
In a book I was recently working on, one of the main themes was the claustrophobic environment where the protagonist grows up. She’s got little hope of a future that’s worth anything, she’s got no way out of the situation she’s in, she’s frequently isolated… She also spends quite a lot of the novel in one room, which adds to how ‘trapped’ she, and therefore the reader, feels. And she lacks autonomy: other people are always controlling and manipulating her because she’s useful to them.
This contributed to the fact that I decided to write the novel in third person (the sense of an observer watching her life and controlling her), present tense (nothing beyond the immediate moment and the omnipresent possibility of death, which couldn’t be conveyed as easily through past tense). It’s an unusual tense to choose, but it also added to the fast-paced, cinematic feel of the book. I wanted to write it a little more like a script than a novel, and while I’m not sure I achieved that in the first draft, the idea was there.
The tense and the POV contributes to establishing the theme of being trapped and robbed of autonomy, so the fact that I knew those were themes before I started helped.
Themes can seem like something that you’ll only come across in litfic, but actually they’re everywhere. In fantasy, there’s a massively obvious one: good vs evil. It’s everywhere. But other writers choose to subvert it by making it much less clear-cut, and that in itself creates another theme of moral ambiguity. For the former, a single POV can work, because the reader won’t really be siding with “evil” so there’s little point in showing that perspective; for the latter, multiple POVs allow the reader to see the different facets of the story and to understand everyone’s motivations.
Yeah, I’m talking about Game of Thrones. When am I not talking about Game of Thrones? Come on, dude, you should’ve figured that one out already.
So if you’re not sure what point you’re trying to make, the themes might help you work it out. Sit down and think, “What would a high schooler be asked to write about when reading this book?” (Or a college student or a middle schooler, depending on your audience. That’s a point: know your target audience, too.)
In my novel, it might’ve been, “To what extent is Isabel’s life dictated by the claustrophobic environment of the city of Espera?” or some crap like that, and then you’d get half a dozen terrible essays on her lack of qualifications and one brilliant one about the ever-present threats that create her paranoia and force her to make stupid decisions, as shown by the use of third person present tense. And another, for a different novel, might be, “Is Alex’s path shaped more by his curse or by his personality?” and then you can discuss free will and identity and predestination and all that crap.
The real answer to the essay question about Alex… which is only entertaining if you know who he is, which you don’t, because he’s hiding in my head. But it makes me laugh, and that’s what matters. Y’all are the extras here.
And by the time you’ve done that, you know your novel a lot better than you thought. Plus, it really helps when you get to a fork in the road as far as plot’s concerned, because you can think, “Which direction should this character take to better explore those themes?” and everything works out better.
So sit down and have a good solid think about the themes you’re portraying (good vs evil, environment, corruption, decadence, identity, self-expression, free will, class and social hierarchy, power…you name it), and I can promise you that planning your novel will feel easier.
Not easy, because planning sucks, but it’ll work. Promise you. It’s gonna be great. Not least because next month we’re talking about outlining, so you’ve got the YAvengers holding your hand through the process. You really couldn’t have more help.
Don’t fancy writing essays on your novel? Nah, neither did I. But working out the questions alone made me really think about the points I was making and the themes I was exploring, and that was enough. So it can help to think of it like that.
Go forth, readers, and discover themes. You may well find them in WIPs where you least expected them. “Oh, magic is actually a metaphor for being gay and the whole thing is about self-expression in the face of rigorous oppression? How does that even work? I’ve already got queer characters!” “Do not question, my child. Just do it. It’ll be awesome.” “Okay…”
Themes are everywhere. You might not even know what you’re really writing until you go looking for them, but it’s only once you do that you can really create something that’s intelligent as well as fun / exciting / whatever it is you kids write books for these days.
-- Iron Man