Ghostwriter Diaries – What’s in a Theme?

NotebookI’ve just submitted the first part of the second novel of the fantasy trilogy I’m ghostwriting. The book has three parts, so I’m about six chapters short of the halfway mark for the project as whole. Hurrah!

Something unexpected has crept into this second book. Something I’m always wary of. It’s something that every writer encounters from time to time, a seductive beast capable of wrapping its many tentacles around your finely crafted prose and either elevating it to dizzying heights … or squeezing the life out of it.

I’m talking about THEME.

You know what a THEME is, right? It’s the answer to the question, “So what’s the book about?” It’s the thread of sense, or feeling, or attitude that runs through the whole story, stitching together all the separate patches in order to make a beautiful quilt. It’s what the author had at the back of his mind all the time.

Isn’t it?

Well, no. I’m deeply suspicious of THEMES. In answer to the question, “What is George Orwell’s 1984 about?” the only rational response is, “Well, it’s about what happens when a man called Winston Smith, who lives in a futuristic totalitarian society, falls so deeply in love that he finds himself flouting the rules of that society, to the point where …” and so on. In short, the answer is the story. Does 1984 also explore THEMES like the abuse of power through mental and physical abuse and control? Of course it does. But the narrative is what counts. Take away the story, and all you have left is a philosophical and political treatise. Subdue the themes and the story still stands.

That’s why, when I found myself thinking, “Hmm, in this novel I’m writing, there’s a hidden location, and several of the characters keep secrets, and some of the action takes place underground. By Jove, I do believe there’s a ‘things that lie beneath’ kind of THEME running through it all!”

And it’s true. There is a THEME. And yes, I’ve explored it, occasionally dropping in phrases or viewpoints that pick up on the idea of things in hiding. But the operative word here is “occasionally”. I’ve worked hard to keep the THEME in its place, because I know from bitter experience that, if you let those tentacles take over, they’ll seize your story and throttle it until it’s blue in the face.

It’s why nobody calls them “stitchwork quilts”.

2 thoughts on “Ghostwriter Diaries – What’s in a Theme?

  1. As a fellow ghostwriter I’m intrigued to see how you’ve found something of your own in this, in the form of theme. I find that there’s a strange balance writing to other people’s briefs and to provide their voice, where you put in some of yourself and what fascinates you, but it’s not entirely your own.

    1. Hi Andrew. Yes, it is a strange balance. The term “ghostwriter” is apt, since I frequently feel like a shadow haunting somebody else’s mansion. On the upside, I get to say, “Boo!” a lot.

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