What Is the Theme?

Authors have many different ways to begin their work. There is no right or wrong way; every writer must find the way that works best for him or her, and that way will probably vary from time to time.

A story or a novel may start with a “what if?” situation, an interesting character, a fascinating setting, an actual event either personal or from the news, or even a prompt in a writing group. It may also start with a writer’s desire to explore a particular theme. I’m quite sure that the current #metoo movement will have given rise to short stories or novels developed to explore the theme of how sexual abuse and exploitation of women affect women and society as a whole. Those stories and novels are not the first and certainly will not be the last constructed around that theme. Themes exploring matters of social justice and political unrest appear frequently, but whether the writer started with those themes and built the novel around them or the themes unfolded as the novel developed only the author knows.

I have never started a novel with a theme in mind. I tend to start either with a character or a situation from which I hope to tell a good story. Mistress of the Wind, the novel I’ve just reissued under my own imprint, started with the character of Kyla. Bringers of Magic, the next novel I’ll reissue also started with a character, that of Ed Robbins. I’ve sometimes started with an incident or news item. That was the case with The Twisted Towers. The idea came from a news story about a Japanese princess who lost her voice. I have written often about getting story ideas from dreams, and those usually start with a “what if?” exploration. What I have never done is begin a story with the set purpose of challenging readers to think about a particular theme. I admire writers who do this, but it simply doesn’t work for me. Actually, it generally isn’t until I complete the first draft of a novel that I know what the theme is. I start out simply to tell a story. ( One exception to this is my novel Seduction of the Scepter, which came from a dream, as I’ve explained elsewhere, but which I realized early on was a novel based on the theme that power corrupts.)

Normally after I complete the first draft of a novel, I set it aside for a while and work on something else. I return to it after several weeks (or months or, in a few cases, years) and look at it with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. And it is then that I come to understand the underlying theme. I then begin working on the second draft with that theme in mind, strengthening it in places but avoiding making it over-obvious, respecting my reader’s intelligence and ability to grasp the theme without being hit over the head with it. Yes, sometimes I’ve been disappointed that a reader’s comment reveals that that particular reader didn’t get what I was trying to illustrate, but I hope that I still told a good and entertaining story.

In the case of the book I just reissued, Kyla, my protagonist, has the problem of knowing she’s been lied to, but she doesn’t know which conflicting statements are true and which are false—and her life may depend on distinguishing the truths from the falsehoods. She tries to judge by the actions of two particular individuals which one is being honest with her and which one is not. At times it seems that both are truthful and at other times that neither is. How can she know what to believe and, consequently, what course of action to take? The answer is that she cannot know; she has to take a leap of faith. That leap of faith leads her through the canyon of doubt and despair to the realization that human knowledge can never be absolute. There are always unanswered questions and there is always room for doubt. While one may search for the truth, indeed must search for it, absolute certainty lies beyond human reach. And that terrible truth is the theme of Mistress of the Wind. It is never stated in so many words. Themes generally are not. They are abstractions that must be understood through the experiences and actions of the characters and validated—or not—through one’s own life experiences.

As I said in beginning this blog, every author has his or her own way of writing. I’m not advocating any particular method of determining the theme of one’s work. I’m just describing what works for me. Nor am I saying that every work has to have a particular theme or that the reader must necessarily recognize the theme or even discern the same theme that the author sees in the work. Every reader brings her or his own experiences to a story and interprets the story in light of those experiences, so every reader may read into the story much more or much less than the author intended. The reader need not search for a particular theme or meaning to a story, and the author should not expect a reader’s interpretation of a story to coincide perfectly with his or her own. I offer my work to my readers in the hope of entertaining them. If I succeed that is all I can really ask.

Now I invite you to read Mistress of the Wind and see what you find in the story.

Mistress of the wind cover ebook

Available as a trade paperback or an e-book. Find the paperback here and the e-book here.

About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
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