20 November 2013

Dream a Little Theme of Me

by Robert Lopresti

First, I owe an apology to Dale, and to anyone who commented on the blog early on Tuesday.  Here's what happened.

I polished thIs piece over the weekend and scheduled it - I thought - for November 20.  I checked it Monday evening and it had disappeared.  Imagine my joy.  I quickly found that I had somehow "scheduled" it for October 20, so it was up, but hidden by weeks of newer blogs.  So I changed the date to November 20.  What I didn't realize was that doing that somehow convinced Blogger to put it up at the top of our blog, even though it clearly said it was not scheduled until the next day. 

When I found out this happened I copied it to a new file - this one - and deleted the old one.  Unfortunately that erases any comments people might have left.  

So again, my apologies.  And if you didn't read Dale's column, you will find it below mine (on purpose this time.)

Bob Daniher  is a mystery fan and budding mystery writer who lives a stone's throw (almost literally) from my sister in New Jersey.  We have chatted about things criminous from time to time and he recently asked me what I thought of literary theme.

Well, it's a good question, was my first reaction.  Because I feel about theme like  Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity: "I know it when I see it."

Fumbling around, I suggested that theme is what the story is about other  than the plot.  My wife said "It's the structure the plot hangs on."  Or you could say it is the world view the story is decribing.  Or what the reader is supposed to feel.

Novelist John Gardner wrote: "By theme here we mean not a message -- a word no good writer likes applied to his work -- but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be World Wide Inflation."

I decided to look at the five stories of mine that have been published this year and see if I can spot any themes.  I start with the Least Visibible Theme and move down to the Theme Heaviest of the tales.  Don't worry, I won't give away the endings.

"Shanks' Ride"
The Plot: A tipsy mystery writer, heading home from a bar, solves the puzzle that has bugged a taxi driver for a decade.
Theme:  Damned if I know, unless it is what JIm Thompson called the only plot:   "Things are not what they seem."

"The Red Envelope."
The Plot: In 1958 Greenwich Village a Beat poet solves the murder of an artist.
Theme: Maybe something like: the danger of misunderstanding.  One character's entire life is changed because someone misunderstands an acronym.  My narrator, new to New York misinterprets many things, including the pronunciation of Greenwich Village.  The murderer is caught because the detective does not misinterpret  the signficiance of the titular envelope. But i admit I am reaching here.

"Two Men, One Gun."
The Plot: A man breaks into a wirter's office and, at gun point, tells him a story about three friends who became enemies.
Theme:  This time I am on solid ground.  I even went back during the edited process and looked for ways to make the theme stand out.  See the first line:  "Here's the story," said the man whose name was probably not Richard.  "Once upon a time there were three men who hated each other."  This is a story about the power of storytelling.

"Crow's Lesson."
The Plot: A private detective blunders onto a parental kidnapping and has to keep the culprit from killing him.
Theme:  At the end of the story Marty Crow tells his client "I learned my lesson" and proceeds to tell him what it is.  This may seem like the message John Gardner warns against, but I prefer to think iof it as the theme.

"The Present." 
The Plot: A woman goes to the mall to find a birthday gift for her son, and believes she sees a kidnapped child.
Theme:I went theme-crazy on this one.  the theme relates to  the protagonist's problems with time (no, this is not science fiction), and  a dozen details are supposed to tickle the reader's subconcious mind on that point.  (All the characters' names relate to time, as does the title of the story, and the birthday present itself is a telescope, suitable for looking millions of years into the past.)

But here's the thing about that last story that makes me wonder: the theme serves the plot more than the plot serves the theme.  You see, the story has a twist ending, and all the references to time are foreshadowing.  It is as if I am setting up little pictures in your peripheral vision, preparing some part of your brain so that when the twist comes you will say, of course, not what the hell?

So does that mean those references are not illustrations of a theme, but merely a plot device?  Have an answer on my desk in triplicate by tomorrow morning.  And in the mean time, tell me what you think of literary theme?  Does it belong in mystery fiction?  Or is it always there whether intended or not?


  1. Nice piece, Rob! (Dealing with blogger SNAFUS is one of the reasons we get those big bucks here at SleuthSayers!)

  2. Good column, Rob. This was an excellent look at a complex subject.

    Theme isn't something I worry a lot about, in writing. (Ignorance is bliss, right?) I think if the story is a good one, if it works, then the theme is there. It might not be obvious, or even--as you implied in your final question--intentional, but I think a piece of good fiction always has a theme. It could be anything: love your neighbor, respect the environment, there is some good in everyone, plan for the future, appearances are deceiving, family is all-important, etc., etc.--but the theme will always be present, either overt or subtle. It's what the writer is trying to tell the reader.

    I especially liked your observation: "I know it when I see it."

  3. I don't think you can tell too much from one or two short stories, but if you look at a substantial body of work - from anyone, I'm convinced_ certain themes emerge.
    In my case, I see unintended consequences and "be careful what you wish for'.

  4. I don't think about themes as I'm writing. I focus on plot and character and voice etc. But I'm often surprised when I finish writing a story that what I guess could be called a theme has emerged, without my intention.

    Of course, the very mention of the word "theme" makes me feel like I'm back in high school, when I didn't want to analyze books, I wanted to read and enjoy them. Perhaps that's why, the day after school ended each year, I trekked to the library to take out the books I wanted to read, and I never thought a moment about their themes.

  5. Rob, I think you and Bob Daniher have set a tough challenge by trying to find themes in short stories. It's easier with novels. The theme of my Bruce Kohler mystery series is recovery (from alcoholism and other addictions). As all writers who take social issues as their theme agree, my top priority is NOT to be preachy, and I'm told I succeed pretty well. But if I looked only at the short stories in my series and not the novels, while recovery and knowledge of addictions is still the hook and sometimes a tool of the investigation, it would feel a bit pretentious of me to call it the theme.

  6. There are underlying themes in mystery fiction just as there are in literary works. Really, it's all literature, and theme is what holds a work together. For a discussion of theme you might also enjoy check out:

  7. The computer gremlin strikes again.

    I like your thought provoking post. When I’m reading and sometimes have to think about theme, I find myself thinking do I want to know the subject or the theme of the story?

    As a guide I turn to the definition of theme in “A Handbook To Literature”: A central idea. In poetry, fiction, and drama it is the abstract concept that is made concrete through representation in person, action, and image. No proper theme is simply a subject or an activity. Both theme and thesis imply a subject and a predicate of some kind-not just vice in general, say, but some such proposition as "Vice seems more interesting than virtue but turns destructive." "Human wishes" is a topic or subject; the "vanity of human wish” is a theme.

  8. Great post Rob! I'm glad we had this conversation about it. I tend to agree with Liz that theme is a bit daunting in a short story. But, after taking a recent writing revision class, I'm under the impression that theme is sometimes about "what the protagonist wants and why".

    Bob D.

  9. Great discussion! I think it's possible to write a story with no underlying theme, but it's kind of like eating chips and dip instead of a hot meal. Both may taste good, but the hot meal stays with you longer. I particularly like the observation that theme serves plot, not the other way around. Whenever I write a short story, I find I have trouble making it all hang together until I have discovered my underlying theme. For example, I wrote a story whose characters I loved,about a kid who kills his mother's abusive boyfriend to protect his little sister. My friend thought the ending was too predictable. I submitted it anyway. It was rejected. I wasn't willing to give up on the story, and as I revised it I discovered the theme that had been eluding me: the only way to truly protect someone you love is to teach her how to protect herself. Once I had that, the entire ending of the story changed. The story was accepted for the MWA anthology,THE MYSTERY BOX.


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