I’ve started reading Michael Alexander Drake‘s book on creative writing, Dynamic Story Creation, and unlike all the other fiction books I’ve read, he instructs the writer to start with a good theme.
By theme, he means what the reader feels after reading your book or watching a movie. He calls this the “Invisible Layer” as opposed to the events, plot or characters (Physical Layer).
I finished two books recently, Arena by Holly Jennings (a Sci-Fi sports underdog novel), and Dead Soon Enough by Steph Cha (a mystery exploring Armenian American culture). Both are set in Los Angeles and deliver different themes, and I got two very different emotions after finishing these books.
As I deal with how I I felt after closing the book, I will deal with spoilers. Before reading my conclusions, I suggest reading these books first.
Thematic Analysis 1: Triumph = Hope
Let’s look at Arena first.
The novel tells the story of a team captain raising her team to compete in a virtual reality e-sports arena. We see her struggle with drug addiction and the loss of her fallen teammate who died from an overdose.
Through the help of her lover, as well as therapy, she overcomes her addictions, leads the team to victory, and overturns an industry that centers on greed at the expense of the players.
At the very end, the protagonist decides to create her own team to influence the industry from the inside. Readers get a sense of awe and hope as we admire the protagonist’s determination and good will. We root for her and want her to succeed, the same way she succeeded in defeating their powerful opponents in the arena, and learned how nice/friendly they were in real life.
It’s a story of overcoming and recovering from one’s addictions, good triumphing over evil, the underdog defeating an oppressive force, and of course love and friendship. The end result is a lot of glee and hopefulness as we move forward with new challenges and goals to pursue. 🙂
On the other hand, Dead Soon Enough gives a different vibe.
Thematic Analysis 2: Unanswered Questions = Unease
The more I think about Steph Cha’s themes, the more I realize how brilliant the book is.
First off, to be honest, I felt that the ending was lackluster. The protagonist escapes danger at the very end. We never directly “see” what happens to Nora, or to Van. There is no “big victory.” No romance at the end either. The protagonist tells a white lie to spare someone’s misery.
But the book clearly deals with faults of the past, secret loves, deceit and white lies, and unclear morality.
The Armenian Genocide is a big topic explored in this book, but the real emotional impact comes from the choices people make. I felt a little puzzled/disturbed/uneasy about how things ended in the book.
- We never find Nora’s body (She’s likely dead from inference; she was “taken care of”)
- We never find Van’s body (Is he dead or alive or on the run?)
- What happens to Rob?
- What happens to Nora’s lovers?
- Will Ruby and Alex never know the truth?
Lots of unanswered questions, but are these loose ends intentional? Were they supposed to match the ongoing controversy regarding the Armenian Genocide. Are there really two sides to the truth and we’ll never know the outcome? On the same token, would the protagonist ever find out what happens to the children that sprang from her eggs?
Very different emotional impacts indeed. I would say happy endings make for better commercial value, but these sad endings are necessary too.
Bittersweet or Ray of Hope Endings
As I figure out my “theme” and write my book, I need to figure out what kind of emotions I’d like to bring forth in the reader. It may be a mix of both perplexity and triumph, given that my science fiction novel is primarily a Mystery with an elemental sub-genre of adventure.
Thinking of my ending, it might be bittersweet. You gain something but at a high price. Then again it could be a ray of hope where villains win, but there’s still a way to win. Either way, my protagonist will lose something, but gain something better. I’ll need to think of this a bit more.