This evening I went to a very interesting meeting of Ohio State’s Science Fiction Club (a whole other blog post to discuss what we talked about), and I got inspired for a few stories and articles. As I walked home from the meeting, I had another idea for an article, which you’re reading now.

As I walking home from Campbell Hall, enjoying the slightly warmer-than-usual weather and listening to heavy metal on my iPod (the mood music I usually listen to when I’m thinking or brainstorming), I was musing on the sorts of stories I tend to write, which ones were good and which ones were terrible, and what differentiated them. I realized something then: one thing that separated some of my good stories from my bad stories is which comes first, the plot or the theme.

Let me explain what I mean: when I first came up with the concept for Reborn City, it started as a simple gangster story with a science fiction twist. I had no idea of what the story would be like beyond that. I wanted it to be more adventure than explanation of scientific theory, I wanted excitement and sci-fi wackiness and life-or-death fights and maybe some sex (which got cut out after the first draft because it just didn’t fit the plot of the story). All the themes that ended up being woven into the story–the struggles and problems of gang life, Islamaphobia and racism, drug abuse, etc.–were woven in at a much later stage, though they became part of the story well before I started actually writing it.

On the other hand, there have been some short stories–which I don’t want to name–where I write them with the specific intention that they represent a theme or an idea. One early sci-fi story from high school about two technicians on a spaceship was meant to reflect on the loneliness of space travel and of isolation. Another was meant to be a ridicule of patriarchal values in society. And there are a few more I could mention, but let me just summarize by saying they were all conceived with a theme first that subjugated the story to the theme.

Apparently for me that latter approach doesn’t really work. The words feel all wrong and forced when I write like that and I find it difficult to make the story move forward.  And I realized as I walking home, past the library and towards the north end of campus, that my best stories are written when I focus more on the plot rather than any significant meaning behind the story. If the story itself is compelling, then the rest will follow, including any very deep themes.

I’m going to have to keep this in mind when I write stories in the future. And if I do end up writing a story where plot is subjugated to theme, at least it’ll be a good learning experience for me on what stories I shouldn’t write and how to avoid writing those sort of stories. I’m sure that there are plenty of authors who can write those stories and do it well (for some reason I’m thinking Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and plenty of other authors I’ve been assigned to read in my high school and college careers), but apparently I’m not one of them.

But in the end is that not surprising? People who love genre fiction, especially the sort of fiction I write, don’t necessarily read a story because they’re looking for a story that exposes the mindset of a battered woman or because they want an allegorical tale of small towns haunted by ghosts representing the ills of ignorance and a narrow-minded worldview. No, they want a story that scares them, and if the themes in the story make you think as well facilitate the whole scaring part of the story, then great. And since this is what I do when I read a story–to look for a good time, not for a deep meaning–it makes sense that my best fiction comes from focusing on the story rather than on what the story means.

Do you ever have problems with this? What are your thoughts on the subject?

  1. This is true, and a very common part of the writing process. Edgar Alan Poe said that with short stories, everything must be consistent with the theme of it. It makes it easier to write short stories much of the time. However, it flies in the face of how some of the best stories are organic and grow beyond their intended parameters.

    • I think that’s how some of my teachers have written their stories.
      But in a way, aren’t all stories sort of organic? We birth them with our imaginations and breath life into the characters, who come alive and wrest the story from us to tell us how they want it to go. Stories are organic in some ways.

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