Not too long ago, I was introduced to a wonderfully forward and direct author I’m sure many of you are familiar with: Chuck Wendig. Not only does he write awesome novels, but he has a fantastic blog geared toward helping writers of all skill levels achieve their desired results in their literary pursuits (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/blog/).
Anyway, one thing I really loved about the article is that Wendig let’s you know (with no frills) that, frankly, you can’t write decent fiction without a theme. In fact, he goes so far as to call any literature without an apparent theme “mindless entertainment,” a statement with which I agree enormously. Now, there’s nothing wrong with writing books purely for entertainment, especially if that’s your goal. However, many writers find themselves in a sticky trap: they’re trying to write something meaningful and it sort of misses the mark, hitting somewhere between the two.
Theme has a great deal to do with this, but I’m going to add to Wendig’s thoughts and say the subject matter, the “what” of your novel, plays a significant part in this as well.
“What” is a concept that drives literally ever single novel that was, is, or will be written (save some weird, futuristic style that smashes random words together like “modern art”). “What” is the thing that creates the little spark of an idea that may eventually become thousands of words that can change a reader’s perspective, or even their life. So how can you know if the “what” of your novel will drive you toward a work that is more significant than mere entertainment?
My answer to that would be examining your subject matter to determine whether it is either timeless, or time-intensive. Timeless novels deal with themes and subjects that are relevant throughout human history. These subjects can include love, fate, mercy, punishment, victory, death, uncertainty, fear, and any number of other things almost generation at any point in history has dealt with or must face in the future. Time-sensitive novels deal with subjects and themes that are important to a specific time and place, such as 18th century colonialism, 19th century class warfare, 20th century determination, and so in and so forth. This may seem confusing at first, but all you have to do is think upon those novels that are considered great novels by all the “experts,” both classic and contemporary.
We’ll start with classics first: take, for instance, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Perhaps the most foremost theme in the novel is that social class is a silly and detestable construct, and that those of the highest classes, though they consider themselves well educated and of greater worth, are comically conceited and woefully ignorant. This is a very time-intensive theme: in 1813, when the novel was published, the constant social upheaval of the formal English aristocratic and peasant classes was all anyone could talk about, and a novel that examined the subject was very appropriate for the time. In 2016, the idea of some families being better than others simply based on surname has almost no relevance to modern struggles. However, the Austen’s message that love can transcend circumstance, birth, and social standing is still something that makes sense to us today, and therefore allows us to still connect to the novel even though it was written over two hundred years ago. The combination of both timeless and time-intensive subject matter is what makes it a great novel; we can both connect to the material, and we also catch a unique glimpse into the important issues of the day.
So what about contemporary works? It’s hard to choose one here, so I’m going to go with one that I really enjoy and have read enough to feel comfortable with discussing, should the author ever find this article (Ha!). John Green’s Looking For Alaska is one of the best examples of contemporary young adult fiction we have available. So what’s timeless, and what’s time-intensive? Mortality is a huge issue explored in the novel, both through Miles’ obsession with last words and through *NO SPOILERS* that thing that happened. Mortality is, perhaps, one of those issues that we as humans will never stop exploring and discussing, be in science, art, or literature. What happens when we die? What is it that makes a person truly alive? How do we spend our fleeting time here making a difference? What is our Great Perhaps? The timlessness of LFA is boundless. The time-intensive bits are little harder to realize because we are, indeed, living in the present. However, the novel examines a lot of what modern adolescence is: kids who have money, kids who don’t. Kids who use substances and get in a healthy amount of trouble to break up the monotony of the majority of time left out of touch with adults. Peer pressure, too, takes a turn in the focal lense. There’s so much there that I could go on for pages, but I’d like for you to think on it and consider it for yourself.
So what’s the point? Well, in order to build a meaningful story-line and incorporate significant themes, you should take the time to think about what in your story is timeless, and what’s time-intensive, and make use of both elements. Writing a romance? Consider those things which make love an important to the human experience. Writing about modern social injustice? Take a perspective that provides insight that’s unique to this place and time. There are so many possibilities!
With all this being said, your novel’s “what” doesn’t have to be just one thing. In fact, all the best novels different “what”s interwoven and layered atop each other. Nothing is stopping you from writing a novel that deals with modern class differences and substance abuse with a wonderful romance element and a tale of tragic overcoming! The thing to remember here is that, no matter what the “what” of your writing is, you cannot have a meaningful piece of literature without a “what.” So next time you sit down to write, take your time when it comes to subject matter, because it really does make all the difference.
Until next time!