Sunday, February 14, 2010

Themes to me...

Enter a world where Wednesday occurs on a the Twilight Zone.

Wait. Wrong era. Never mind.

Somehow, blogging about writing stuff jogs my creative juices in my writing. Go figure. I have a nice stockpile of material saved in draft mode now, and just burning to be discussed. Therefore, I think it's time for me to start posting a little more often, namely on Saturdays.

*drum roll*

May Special Saturdays now begin. I'm going to devote these posts to more specific pieces of the craft, especially those things that I feel that I excel the most in. Beware. Poetry suggestions might even appear at times.


Today's topic is one near and dear to my heart. If you don't mind a writer preening for a moment, I am quite aware of my many writing craft flaws, the pain and misery of writer's block, and the particular banes that plague my writing. (Pronouns! Gah!)

But one area ( believe I excel in is description. Even my beta readers so far agree with me. (Wow, something they all agree on? Does someone have the number for Fox News?) In the interview with Lydia Sharp that I participated in, I mentioned several different things I learned and use in description. These that I learned and applied as I developed my voice are what I attribute to that descriptive flair.

Themes is number one on my list. The idea of using a theme in description is rather subtle. It took me months to realize that some of my favorite authors used them, and then to incorporate them into my writing.

We humans are a conglomerate of life experiences, memories, acquired tastes, and different word/color/image associations that we amass over our lifetime. Any and all words or images that we see are usually connected in our minds to some other topic or situation, thus enabling the reader to imagine with us, or to connect to other ideals.

This is important to any piece of writing, but especially to speculative fiction and poetry. The former is usually describing or revealing something that is brand new, or markedly dissimilar from the normal world that we know. And the latter is designed to take things and look at them from a completely different perspective. Both require some framework for your reader to wrap his mind around.

When you are attempting to reveal something so new to a reader, and yet ensure they do not feel lost or confused, you apply themes.

As the writer W.D. Wilcox stated so succinctly:

I learned some time back that the best way to reach a person is to give them an example, or story, that opens the person you are trying to reach on some emotional level. Once they can relate to what you are saying emotionally, then they will be willing to understand what it is you are trying to say.

--Quoted from website, Horror/Scary Newsletter, with permission

In the same manner, we use themes--and the connotation of them--to create an emotional response in a reader. By linking their acquired thoughts and memories and etc. into the reaction I wish to create.

Besides new ideas, the use of themes and the emotional response it brings can also make description more vivid. The more directly I can involve the reader, make them feel with me, the more interest they have in the story. It becomes rich, without being decadent.

Particular words have different meanings and senses of the meaning. The choice of words can change how one relates to a moment.

Using some quotes from The Good Guy by Dean Koontz, I'll break down some sentences as examples, and also some of W.D. Wilcox's other examples in his newsletter.

Disclaimer: Though I enjoy some of his books, Dean Kootnz's content is not always appropriate. I have been known to "edit" certain areas--simply for my own beliefs.

In one passage, Dean Koontz describes clouds passing over a moon, in the midst of a rather tense scene in the book. He could easily have said simply:

Silver clouds passed across the face of the moon.

Yes, that is picturesque. But it doesn't truly stand out. Silver is pretty and it does seem expensive, but it really doesn't cause me to feel any sort of emotional reaction.

On the other hand, Dean Koontz mixed in some much stronger sense. First, he applied the use of something that is usually met with a knee-jerk reaction. A great deal of people do not like snakes, spiders, and things with fangs and slavering jowls. (sorry, wolf-lovers) The creepy-crawly, scaled, buzzing things of nature are often a source of disgust or uneasiness.

In the sentence, he mixed in a mention of snake's skin. Again, he could have kept it simple.

Silver clouds, like iridescent snake skin, passed across the face of the moon.

Better, but not quite a reaction. Snakes, ew. But the rest of the sentence could as well have been mumbled. Instead, Koontz added some key words and verbs that followed a particular...theme.

Using the concept of snakes and reptiles, here's a possible line of thought. Snakes molt. Their skin peels. The dead skin is white or silver, gleams in the moonlight. It could come off in strips.

Combining all of those pieces of idea together, the sentence in the book reads:

As iridescent as a snake's skin, thin ravels of silvery clouds peeled off the face of a molting moon.
(pg. 83, Good Guy, paperback by Bantam Books)

Do you notice the difference? How much stronger is that choice of words, then the simpler versions of before? For me at least, I grimaced at the idea of snake's skin, increasing my creeping dread for the scene, and yet I could clearly picture the clouds and the moon.

Not every sentence can be made to shine in this manner. To do so would be like eating a piece of chocolate cake every hour of the day. The richness would be lost, and you end up with an upset stomach and a lifetime supply of Pepto-Bismol. Don't turn your reader's stomach sour.

But using themes, following a patter of thoughts and words linked together can make them much, much stronger.

In my own stories, I have a moment where I described a desolate, empty, barren landscape. In my descriptions of dead foliage and dry soil, I added this line of description.

To stand still invites the gestating fear in her heart to flower.

I could have just said. Standing still increased her fear. But it would not have the impact that using the same theme--flowers and plants--and contrasting it, as the simpler version.

Check out these other examples by W.D. Wilcox

The sky had completely shrouded itself in the gray clouds that it had been steadily knitting since morning.

She cried in broken bird sounds: feather-soft sobs like lonely pigeons in the rafters, or the misery of windblown gulls.

That is much stronger and more vivid, bringing out an old, somber mood in the first example, and a quiet loneliness and misery in the second.


Here is my challenge to you. Pick out your all-time favorite book, the one that just enthralls you every time you nibble at a chapter. (make sure perhaps it is a copy, or a paperback that you don't mind ah...defaming a little)

I highly suggest The Taking by Dean Koontz for this project, as it holds a large proportion of themed paragraphs and sentences. (Book Rave coming soon on this re-read, re-read, re-read book of mine) But any book that is worth its salt is good for this exercise.

Now, pull out a nifty pen and re-read, slowly, the first chapter. Circle or underline words in a paragraph that seem to relate to one another. Pay special attention to the verbs. (It is usually best to do this with different colored highlighters)

Do you notice any patterns? Do the paragraphs stand out differently than if you used simpler verbs and adjectives?

For an even more detailed exercise, can you write out one word, or a group of words, that are the "theme" that belongs to that paragraph?


  1. I really enjoyed this post. It's true that descriptions are more effective when you can tie them together, though that can be a huge challenge sometimes. Good observation. =)

  2. Excellent post. Fascinating stuff to think about.

  3. Now, see, whenever I write picturesque descriptions, people tell me to take them out. "You're too in love with the words." "It's getting in the way of the action." "Kill your babies!"

    (grinding teeth)

  4. I think the longest description I have left in the story is this one, which I'm afraid someone will tell me to take out. It uses a flower theme to convey the tie the characters have to the natural world. Marenya is making a gift for her cousin.

    It was a traveling cloak for the journey to Tor Aden, made of the softest Glenhym wool and dyed just the right shade of blue. Not turquoise, like the waters of the tarn, nor the slightly purplish shade of the tiny hyacinths that were now blooming along the roadsides, but the clear, true, unassailable blue of speedwell, which covered the hills in summer like patches of sky fallen to earth. Speedwell - to speed Pelwyn safely on the journey to her marriage and her new life.Marneya had worked the tiny blue-and-white flower into the design that traveled along the front edge of the hood and the placket, along with ivy for long life, shamrocks for luck, and faithflower for fidelity. She was anxious to finish in time, for they were due to leave the day after tomorrow.

  5. Great post WQ! Really clarified some ideas and things I've been seeing in both my reading and writing.

    Gonna have to go off and try it now!

  6. @ Telliot

    Yes. It took me...a while, to pick up on that. But once I took to highlighting and writing in my favorite books, the pieces started to fall into place.

    But then...I've always been a self-learner.

    @ Brad

    Thanks. I'm glad you liked it. Cute avatar. ^_^

  7. Christine,

    It depends, somewhat. It's part of finding that balance I believe. And, it also depends on the genre.

    For example, the bit you put up would work fine in a fantasy. (I personally loved it) but you couldn't do that in a sci-fi. The...tone and style of genres shifts.

    The "kill your babies" thing is also a give and take. On the one hand, you can't hold onto a particular phrase or sentence or paragraph if it kills your flow, messes with your tension/plot, is too wordy, etc.

    But, sometimes a line is a "baby" simply because it truly is good. Then it should stay.

    Balance, unfortunately, is the biggest key. And you can't please everyone. I have beta readers who despise my descriptive flair.

    In the end, it's your story. Never forget that.