Theme in a series

by Amy

Question: I struggle with theme. Whether I'm over or under simplifying it I'm not sure but it feels (in my lack of experience) like a slightly narrow, one pronged way to tell a story. Certainly a series.

I'm massively oversimplifying this but in your experience can or should a series have an overarching theme, individual themes per book, or both? I feel like I'd have a hard time stretching one theme over several books but having back to back unrelated themes feels disjointed. Thanks for your help!

Answer: Just to make sure we're on the same page, when we talk of theme, we are referring to the values of the story. The thematic argument of a story is similar to a debate over which principles are truly valuable, desirable, or advantageous.

In a well-structured story, the thematic argument is anything but one-pronged, since a one-sided argument is so obviously biased it persuades no one.

Here's how Dramatica looks at the process of building a thematic argument...

First, every thematic issue needs its counterpoint. For instance, if you wanted to have a story about the value of altruism, the counterpoint might be self-interest.

So, throughout the story, you might have some events that show the value of altruism and some events that show the value of self-interest. The reader must then weigh up the evidence (which you can stack however you like) in order to reach the conclusion about which principle is more valuable.

To make this more complex, you want to have different perspectives on the issue. You might, for instance, have an event that shows what altruism is worth from the perspective of a privileged person, and another event that shows its value from the perspective of an unprivileged person. Ditto with self-interest. You might have another event that shows whose perspective is more trustworthy -- the privileges or the unprivileged person. And you might have an event that directly pits altruism versus self-interest and shows which is more valuable.

If that isn't complex enough, Dramatica proposes that each of the four major throughlines can have its own thematic argument.

The Overall throughline examines the values of the story world. For
instance, does everyone in the community where the story takes place think that money equates with happiness? Or do they believe the love of money is the root of all evil?

The Main Character throughline explores the values held by the main character. What principles does he/she think are important or advantageous? Is there a counterpoint -- a contrasting principle that creates moral conflict?

The Impact Character throughline explores the values held by the impact character.

Finally, the Relationship throughline explores the values the main and impact characters both wrestle with. Often, these two share a perspective that sets them apart from the other characters. They may share a common issue and counterpoint that they argue over.

In fact, Dramatica says that the real theme of a work cannot be stated, but exists at the intersection of all four thematic arguments.

Of course, as much fun as it can be for a book club to try to pick apart the thematic argument and decide what "the real theme" of a book is, it can be a nightmare for a writer to try and build such a complex argument mechanically, especially if you are more of a "pantser."

However, it can be worthwhile to think about what sort of values your characters have and make some notes, even if you then let your instinct take over in the actual writing.

As for the matter of series vs. individual books...

You always have two tasks with a series. You have to make each book a satisfying read, and you need something that links the series together that makes it a series.

Theme can be a unifying element that unifies a series. For instance, racism vs. love is an issue that runs through all the Harry Potter books. It's an issue that permeates the story world, the overall throughline. That doesn't stop Harry from wrestling with different personal issues in each book.

Or you can have a series, like Agatha Christie's Poirot books, where the main character's core value is his condemnation of murder (and disorder in general), but each book is set in a slightly different social milieu where the issues are unique.

Hope that helps.

Comments for Theme in a series

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Thank you
by: Amy

That helps a lot, thank you. I'm not comfortable with the idea of theme yet as I'm not clear on how to remain unbiased while stacking at all. Then there's being subtle vs heavy handed without being so subtle the theme is missed.
Alternatively if I don't have one in mind I'm worried an unwanted, confused theme will emerge that doesn't apply to the story I'm trying to tell.
Time to study theme in more depth, I think.

To Amy
by: Glen

Some quick follow-up thoughts...

1. You're not going to be completely unbiased, and that's okay. Just try to have some empathy for the other side.

2. Remember that revision gives you an opportunity to assess how your theme comes through and make adjustments if it's a problem.

3. A critique group might help too.

Thanks again
by: Amy

Thanks so much. Your advice and this entire site is a fantastic resource I'm getting a lot out of.

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