As I (slowly) write my third novel, and try to hone my craft a little more with every sentence, the idea of THEME keeps popping into my head. Buzzing around my brain all the while nagging me to not forget what my point is here. I think with this story, much more so than my previous two, I need to keep my themes evident in everything; every word in every sentence of every chapter must all be leading somewhere, hoping to say something coherent and meaningful.

My third novel (tentatively named “THIS NEVER HAPPENED”) juggles such ideas as Identity, Dreams, Reality, Memory, Happiness, Depression, Purpose, Family and Love. It treads into Boy-Meets-Girl territory. It plays with the reader’s head, making them question what is real and what is not. And before you it, it turns itself over and transforms into a far-fetched and sci-fi laden mystery. Yes, that’s a lot to think about. And it takes a lot of planning and outlining to keep everything on the tracks, heading in the right direction. The key to this? A solid theme, of course. But there’s more to this as well.

A question or two: Do most writers pick one single theme and run with it? Do they keep it loose and not worry too much about whether the reader will identify their theme? Are their books thematic-heavy, impossible to not pick up on it? Is it more common a writer’s work to have multiple themes? Does it sometimes have no theme at all? Does anything go?

Next, I decide to revisit my original synopsis for the book, the hook if you will, hoping my burgeoning ideas for the story will remind me why I’ve chosen to write the story. Here is one of the first things I wrote when I started this project, then tentatively known as “EPOCH”:

Epoch: A black hole collapses and ten thousand years later a baby boy is born. Each event is linked wholly to the other. As the boy grows up he feels as though he doesn’t belong anywhere and he eventually becomes certain he was never meant for this world.

After much deliberation and considering my original hook and dissecting the ideas and chapters I’ve already gotten down, I decide that my main theme is Identity. My main character has never felt like belonged and has always had a difficult time trying to fit in and figure out who he was meant to be. But knowing where this complicated tale is headed, I also want to make Reality a theme. I figure this particular novel is best suited to be heavy on these two themes so how do I start really tying them into the story?

Next, and with a fine-tooth comb, I go through the five full chapters I have so far (roughly 10,000 words) and make sure the idea of Identity is really tied into what my characters say and what my main character thinks (this is a First-Person Narrative). I take a look at all the words and re-think why they’re there and if I could use a better sentence. This is something that will be done again in the editing stage, but by then it will mostly be for grammatical reasons and making sure my exposition reads clearly.

Reality is something that begins to be questioned later in the book, and plays a large role, but it’s the kind of idea that is best used with a smattering of clues, first unnoticeable, then with a light dusting, and finally a full-blown “make the reader question everything that’s happened” scenario. I remind to think about this as I go, but the truth is that with proper outlining the editing stage will help me decide when too much information is being given or if more is needed.

But for now I’ll be saving my document and closing my computer for the night. In bed I’ll think about this more-refined direction and hope that the words will start to flow a bit faster tomorrow.

How about you writers out there? How do you tackle the use of theme in your work?

How Sad is Too Sad?

While plugging away on my current novel, I had to stop myself. I needed to just put everything aside and think about what was going on with my story, specifically my protagonist

My main character’s name is Epic Small. Epic is a twenty-five year old man. His mother left him when he was a young boy. His father’s failing shoe store business was burned to the ground years ago and he’s been scraping by on welfare checks and alcohol ever since. Epic visits his therapist on a regular basis, mostly just to keep the psychopharmaceutical prescriptions coming, the only thing that helps him find some comfort in his solitary life. His love life has been a series of lessons in embarrassment. He works his menial job in a laundry & linen supply company because he’s never had a post-secondary education. He’s not really trying in life, just flowing along with what the world brings him, feeling disconnected and out of place the whole time. Of course, there’s more to the story as we go along, but that wasn’t really my point in stopping to think about this.

The point is this: Epic Small is a sad character. In my writing I’ve always felt a helping of sympathy was important for a reader to root for the protagonist. But am I going too far with this one? At what point does sad become too sad?

I wrote a screenplay years ago entitled Touching Glass. This was my first official attempt at really writing anything. I’ll include some excerpts from it on this blog sometime in the future. The premise was basically: Boy meets girl – boy is dumped by girl – boy never gets over girl – boy meets girl again many years later – boy tries to win girl back – boy fails – boy is miserable – boy kills himself. Yes. Boy KILLS himself.

In retrospect, that particular story went a bit too far. How can we really care in the end when this guy doesn’t win and simply ends it all? We can’t. But as a young writer trying to get the thoughts and feelings out that I needed to, this is what I believed had to happen. He had to die for the audience to feel for him in the end. The sadder the better, right?

I learned a few things from that first screenplay, and although I didn’t have any more protagonists off themselves in later writing, I still had the itch to make them sad sacks. Sympathy from your audience is an important thing, but the trick is going about it the right way. Which brings me to now.

I really want Epic to feel as though his place in this world is a little off. He’s not where he was meant to be. But it is also vital that the reader believes this too and that they are rooting for Epic through his ups and (mostly) downs. Is it a bad idea to come blazing out of the gates with this character who doesn’t catch a break, especially if this character isn’t actively trying to turn things around?

How sad is too sad?