Theme is probably one of the most-asked questions I get ‘off blog’ when working on writing projects with my Bang2writers. These writers will fret people may not ‘get’ their theme or message, or perhaps even claim the point of their story is ‘wrong’ somehow.
But this is the thing. People WILL disagree about the theme or message of your story — even with you, the writer! Whilst sometimes this goes waaaaay off-piste, 9/10 this is actually a good thing … It shows how your reader or viewer has participated in breaking down your story for meaning. This is brilliant!
Let me illustrate
When I finished writing my debut crime novel, The Other Twin, I believed I had written a novel with the theme of toxic relationships and control. That’s what I set up from the beginning as I was drafting and what many beta readers agreed it was ‘about’.
So, I was both delighted and intrigued to see many of the initial reviews talking about how The Other Twin’s theme, to them, was one of identity. These reviewers latched on to a number of elements in the plotting – especially the online/social media parts – and praised this theme as being relevant and modern, saying The Other Twin is a cautionary tale for the various personas we may have in various settings, both on and offline.
So who is right? BOTH!
As the writer and architect of The Other Twin, I ‘know’ the book from its very inception and through its many (torturous!) drafts. Over the fifteen months I was writing it, it morphed through a number of different ideas, drafts, redrafts, page 1 rewrites and sheer hysteria at one point when I was going to delete the entire thing! TRUE STORY.
On this basis then, I am both the mother AND midwife of The Other Twin – I conceived and nurtured it from the beginning, before letting it out into the world.
But once it was out in the world, I could no longer control my readers’ responses to my book. Happily for me, my agent and Orenda Books, the overall response has been overwhelmingly positive. But whatever that response was, all we could do is the best we could with the story before releasing it out into the wild. That’s it.
You have to let go
So when writers come to me, worried about readers’ and viewers’ reactions to their work, I always tell them:
“You don’t get to choose how people respond to your writing.”
Sometimes, people will get EXACTLY what you’re going for in your story. This always feels fabulous, because it’s like they have peeled away the ‘top layer’ of your writing and seen your intention shining underneath. It fulfils and validates you as a writer. You get to preen a bit and I’d wager most writers like that; I know I do.
Other times, the experience is not so good. People may decide they don’t like the theme or message of your work, or not understand what the point of it was. Most of the time this is okay (though this can turn toxic in the age of ‘Call-out Culture’ on social media). But usually, bygones will be bygones – no one will like everything you write and that is okay. (Though it can smart!).
But there is a third option everyone forgets – and it’s actually my favourite. This is when the reader or viewer takes his/her worldview and experiences and sees something relevant to themselves in YOUR story. It’s often not remotely what you intended, but that’s okay – because as soon as they describe what they ‘saw’, you immediately go, ‘Omg! I love it!’ Best of all, now you can see it too.
Queen of Hearts
This was one of my favourite reviews of The Other Twin, courtesy of Book Blogger Sharon Bairden at Chapter In My Life:
“I can’t help but compare my reading experience to Alice in Wonderland – with the White Rabbit as the spark of Poppy’s curiosity and desire to discover what lay behind her sister, India’s apparent suicide. The mysterious King and Queen of Hearts (the invisible narrators throughout the book) with their control over their “followers” and the whole notion of the “Mad Hatters Tea Party ” concept in which societal “norms” are abused and used to the advantage of the narrators.” — Read the whole review, HERE.
I LOVE Sharon’s comparison of my story to Alice In Wonderland. Even though I never once consciously thought about this story when drafting the novel, I can totally see why Sharon was drawn to this comparison. It’s a great contribution to the discussion and immediately opens up loads of other avenues.
What’s more, I suspect I was more subconsciously influenced than I realised: I was a big fan of Lewis Carroll and pored over it as a child (I still have his full collected works on my bookshelf) … Plus as a script reader now, I probably read 2-3 adaptations of one of the Alices or his nonsense poems every single year!
Basically, without Sharon’s contribution, I wouldn’t have put my finger on all this. Wow!
The moral of the tale?
I’m not making a value judgement when I say writers don’t make the ‘best judge’ of storytelling. Writers obviously know their works inside out and know what they intended.
But unless we are hobby writers, our stories have to go out to our audiences at some point. Sometimes our carefully crafted stories and that theme, point or message within them won’t get through to the writer’s intended audience. This may be because of bad writing; bad marketing; crappy luck; or something else. Same difference.
With this in mind then, us writers need to decide on our own theme, point or message … but also learn to LET GO of our stories too. There is literally a limit to what we can do and we can’t control everything. Nor should we! People will see what they think is ‘right’ in our stories (or not). This is okay.
What’s more, occasionally someone will see something even YOU didn’t realise about your own work. That’s pretty special.
More on this blog about theme, plot & story:
- 3 Important Tips On Theme And Story
- All About Theme
- What Theme ISN’T: 3 Things You Need To Know About Plot Holes
Many thanks to Reedsy for this brilliant infographic! CLICK HERE for more at their site about theme.