I thought this was going to be a straightforward post, but the more I read about theme and the more I work at detecting it in the novels I read, the more I see that it's an elusive truth that is multilayered and can mean many things to many people, and even to the author it's a truth that can be appear as a singular vision, or can change and fluctuate and focus and dissolve and continue forming as the book is written. As such it is a feeling, an understanding of the world in a particular way that stems from one emotion and grows into a statement which rings true for the book. It can start with one word, the idea I have played around with in this post. For TUBE it's fear. Everything centers around fear. And there are layers on top of that fear that manifest in multiple ways, the main three of which are plot, structure and character (this I have picked up from Theme & Strategy by Ronald B. Tobias), but the emotion remains the same. I'll peel it apart for you so you can see the layers.
1. PLOT: Face your fear to overcome it.
Every scene in TUBE is played out according to this theme. In every scene the characters face their fears and do something that brings them toward overcoming it, or moves them away from it. If a scene fails to accomplish this, I either cut it or rewrite it.
2. STRUCTURE: The mystery of fear. Who is scared of whom/what and why?
The best structure to fit TUBE is an idea story, a mystery, when a question gets asked in the beginning and answered in the end. Who is afraid of whom/what and why? Every scene must give an answer to a question that leads to the next question, and to the next question, until the big question is answered. Those questions are three big questions (one for each act) and lots of little questions (one for each scene) that sum up to one. For example, in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea the main question is, Will the man win over the fish? And within this main question the act questions are: Act 1. Will he catch any fish? Act 2. Will he catch the big fish? Act 3. Will he keep the big fish?
3. CHARACTERS: Every character has a fear.
That's every character's arc in TUBE: at the beginning every character is afraid of something, at the end that fear is conquered (or not).
What I have described above is stuff on the surface, broad strokes. There is more underneath this general emotion of fear. Now that I know the theme, I can be more specific and drill down into smaller elements and details, figure out what symbolism I need to use, what metaphors, and why. Let me do this list again:
1. PLOT: Phallophobia that results in fear of intimacy. Can be overcome by gradual exposure to the object of the phobia and by remembering the specific traumatic event that caused the phobia, to gain mastery over it.
Suddenly every scene becomes a sex scene tinged with fear, depending on the character involved. And every sentence of every scene carries with it the image of penetration in one form or another, or the prelude to it, or the postcoital aftermath. This makes it very specific for me to know what to write, which slows me down but also unblocks me. I'm simply never stuck anymore. It's all very clear.
2. STRUCTURE: Direct questions and direct answers. Minimalism that invokes mystery.
This is really bordering on style, as I drill down into the details of the structure, but the idea is to keep the scenes short and stark and almost observatory in nature, with hardly any emotions mentioned, to invoke the mood of fear and mystery. Which again helps me to know how to structure my acts and scenes to achieve this.
3. CHARACTERS: The characters have various fears: fear of intimacy, laughter, loneliness, truth, vulnerability, etc.
Every character has a specific fear, and from that fear arises the want and the need, so I drive each character toward their want, but in the end make them choose the need (or not) to show their growth (or stagnation). When mapped out to 4 emotional character changes—setup, response, attack, resolution (which correspond to 8 stages of grieving: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, deliberation, choice, integration)—I know how to match the subplots of every character to every scene, depending on where in their "fear" arc they are.
And yet again, what I have described above is not all. There is another layer underneath it, the layer of symbolism and metaphors. Since I know I'm writing a book about overcoming fear, and specifically the fear of intimacy, I use symbols that support this, like phallic symbols for penis (train, keys, cigarettes, telephone poles, tube-shaped pastries, etc.) and vulvic symbols for vagina (doors, windows, cloth pouches, round openings, etc.) and colors that signify arousal in various stages, as well as colors embedded in our culture that are symbolic of innocence or loss of virginity (white, pink, red, purple, etc.). I try to present every scene in the view of what it needs accomplish symbolically. The further away I manage to stay from specifically describing what's going on, the stronger the impression my theme will make. The more literal and specific I am, the weaker it will be. So I try to find the balance. Even the choice of the POVs is important to theme. I chose Third Person Limited POV to be able to hop from head to head, but also to stay within enough mystery to keep the tension of guessing.
Of course, what I have outlined for you is mostly guesswork. TUBE is the first book where I'm consciously trying to apply theme, learning how to do it as go. I'm also aware that I will probably do it differently in Janna after learning some lessons on TUBE. And to tell you a little secret, I'm using TUBE as my training ground for Janna. I want Janna to be really good. From the start. In this way TUBE is like my lab rabbit. I learn and apply what I learn and see what happens. So far it's been slow but good. I haven't been stuck once. I wake up, I look at my theme (which is written above my laptop in big red letters), then I look at my plot outline, then at the scene summary, then I think how my theme will play out in it, then I think how I want the scene to end, then I flip it so I know how to start, and then I start. And I write slowly, thinking about every sentence. Most of them are a bit clunky at the moment, but that's okay. I know I will revise them, and I know I won't be throwing this draft away. I will be revising on top of it as everything is in its place, as good a place as I can make it, and I know what after one revision I will need one more, and it'll be done, and I'll have to move on. I know I will probably learn how I should've applied theme differently, and that's what I'll do in Janna. Hopefully after this process Marquis and Plato, the book about the cat and the pigeon, will be fucking brilliant. We shall see. Wish me luck and patience.
Onward (which is the theme of all my blog posts).