Themes as Little Darlings that May Have to Be Killed

Clarifications up front for terms as I use them in this post:

  • "Plot" refers to the story as an identifiable structure, a sequence of events from beginning to conclusion. This is the sort of thing that can be summarized or outlined, as in, "Prota Gonist leaves his house in the morning to go to work. He winds up fighting traffic, avoiding potential accidents, and overcoming similar obstacles on the way. When he gets there, his boss warns him about his lateness, and Prota Gonist quits at the end of the day. When he gets home, he puts a For Sale sign on his car and takes a job (previously offered) at a greengrocer’s next door to his house."
  • "Theme" refers to messages or meanings within a story. For example, "Wasted time, aggravation, and danger can outweigh the extra money you get from a job."
  • "Little Darlings" is a writer’s term (I forget who coined it, King maybe?) for things in a work that the writer has fallen in love with and cannot bear to destroy, no matter how bad it may be for the work as a whole.
In a recent writing group meeting, I wound up in an argument during my observations on someone else’s work — I know, not the ideal situation for any critique session, but it happens. I’m fairly new in this group, and I haven’t seen this particular work evolve. My contention was that a particular story thread took me out of the context of the core plot, and thus weakened it unnecessarily. The argument — not just from the writer in question — was basically that the element had to stay in to keep the richness of the complex structure of the book, and in fact the section I had a problem with was relevant because it relates directly to a theme.
So here’s where I thought about my own thinking on themes and their importance in stories. I thought this to myself, instead of carrying on, as the argument had already caused the critique in question to lose a certain amount of value. This is a very good group, and a pointless argument might prevent me from extracting value from the overall experience, as I did here.
To me, a thematic element is secondary or tertiary in importance to characters/plot, and can weaken the story if it draws too far afield. I have a bunch of these in my own first novel draft, some really pretty sections with prose I like and which my wife loved on alpha read. They have something to do with themes, but take away from the core plot arc, and my excuses for keeping them in boiled down to them being little darlings.
I’m hauling them all out.
If the theme really exists, I don’t need to beat the reader over the head with it. If it doesn’t, I have no business shoehorning it in. My story is a story, not "Chicken Soup for the Person-Who-Likes-Unrelated-Anecdotes-that-Support-an-Author-Opinion’s Soul." (And yes, I recognize the irony embodied in this paragraph. Good thing this is a blog post instead of a story.)
There are few things that annoy me more as a reader than an author who pushes an opinion in a transparently polemic manner, even when it’s an author I like. You can get away with it once if it’s from a single character’s voice — characters do have opinions, after all — but when the same thing gets proclaimed in two book by two different characters, a red flag goes up. Three novels, and I’m lowering my rating.
Themes should be discovered by the reader for a number of very good reasons:
  • It makes the reader feel smarter when they discover it, and doesn’t make them feel stupider when Prota Gonist comes out and says, "Don’t you see? We would all be happier working at a greengrocer!"
  • A reader who discovers a theme, but disagrees with the author’s viewpoint, is more likely to see the theme as a question rather than a statement, prompting discussion. A reader who disagrees with a hammered opinion will proclaim the author an idiot all over the internet.
  • A reader will often find themes that the author didn’t put in there in the first place, and they’re just as valid, if not more so.
A lot of authors don’t even think about themes. They just write stories. This doesn’t weaken their stories one bit. There might still be a theme in there, whether the author was thinking about it or not.
You might notice there is some interchange between the terms "theme" and "opinion" here. In a lot of cases they’re the same, but more often not. I used to get confused about them quite often, but right now I think of a theme as more of a question, and an opinion as an answer. Consider the following thematic element, chosen for maximum possible negative feedback effect:
As a theme: Are good relations between ethnicities an integral part of a better world?
Possible answers: Yes, AND here are a bunch of things I’ve experienced to support this contention; No, the harmony thus produced is weak and artificial; Maybe, but there’s always going to be some vestigial fear until everyone is genetically homogenous.
As an opinion: All ethnicities must get along to make the world a better place.
Possible answers: Yes, I agree with you already and therefore don’t need to buy your stupid story; No, you politically correct pawn, wait until I tell everyone what a preachy jerk you are; Yawn, this tired crap again?
I know which version I would rather hear at a book club discussion, listening in a dark corner with a fake nose and glasses on.
As a side note, when I get something critiqued, I specifically try to get people who have never read it before. There’s a phenomenon I call "engineer-itis" in the world of software and product design, which is where the programmer/engineer sits in his basement for two years developing a product — a very good product — but either has the user interface left untested, or else has the same people test it over and over again, until it’s ready to release on the market. He is then surprised when it gets poor reviews because nobody knows how it works. "What, if you wanted to print you just need to hit Alt+Shift+F5 and then the backslash key. Read the manual, stupid user!" (The last sentence may be uttered even if there is no manual.)
When I write a story, my story is the product. My use of language is the user interface. I don’t want my customer to need to look at a manual to understand it.

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