5

This question is slightly less straightforward than the title implies, and requires a little explanation.

Firstly, I am an entirely self-taught writer. Because of this, my methods are probably a bit different than 'the norm' (if there even is such a standard). For example, I believe that the message of a novel is its most important aspect. I strive to form a novel from a message alone, so that the story naturally conveys what I am trying to say to the reader. Everything else - characters, stakes, and especially plot - flow from the message. This may or may not be ideal; it's simply what I've found works the best for my writing.

Because I write my novels this way, the message is a very important part of my development process. It's where everything begins, and it's something I have to develop correctly the first time, or everything that springs from it will ultimately not work to its full potential.

Question: Can I repeat the same message over a series of novels? Because the novel springs from the message, my concern is that the novels will all follow the same plot, and so become boring. If I can use the same theme, how can I ensure that the novels are different?

My reason for confusion is that Harry Potter seems to have done this quite successfully. The message of Harry Potter, as I see it, is the power of love, and how those with love will always triumph over those without. This message remains the same throughout all seven books, and at least the first six books seem to follow the same general pattern. (Dursleys, school, steps to solving main conflict, confrontation with Voldemort, resolution.) This clearly did not detract from the books, hence my confusion.

Note: Please be clear: I realize using a message this way is vastly different than the majority of authors. That's not what my question is about. My question is about using the same theme over a series, when the plot springs from the theme directly.

  • Good points. I stopped reading/watching/caring anything Harry Potter after the second installment for that reason. Have you tried going outside of fantasy to see what your message looks like with commercial fiction? Perhaps a short story? – Stu W Jan 3 '16 at 1:12
  • I think you can successfully use a message or moral as general as "the power of love" in an almost infinite number of stories - as, indeed, it has been so used by thousands of authors in thousands of stories. But the more specific your message, the harder you are going to need to work at making the plots different. Note how cleverly JK Rowling does differentiate her plots to overcome their basic similarity. For instance in The Chamber of Secrets the villain is ...; trying to avoid spoilers here ... not quite who you think it is. – Lostinfrance Jan 3 '16 at 12:57
  • Intuitively, I would subjectively answer your question with: No, you should not do that. The reason is that - in my understanding - your message is equivalent to James N. Frey's premise (cf. amazon.com/Write-Damn-Novel-Step---Step/dp/0312010443/…). The premise, on the other hand, is the shortest form your story can take. Hence, when using the same premise, you basically tell the same story. You can do that. The question is: Would you want to? And more importantly: Would your readers care to read a repition? – Filip Jan 3 '16 at 14:35
  • I do not understand, how a message (such as "power of love") can restrict your creativity in developing a new plot for every novel you are writing. There is an infinite number of ways to convey any given message, whether it is something you repeat over and over, or invent anew every time you start writing a new piece. – Lew Nov 1 '16 at 16:31
  • For what it's worth, I've been taught that theme is not the writer's job; it's the reader's. The writer's job is, instead, to just tell a good story. Get characters into and out of the room. Get them into and out of trouble. Theme will emerge from that without the writer worrying about it at all. – Ken Mohnkern Nov 1 '16 at 20:37
3

The theme (I think that's what you're talking about) is something that is often part of a novel, but it's not part of the plot at all, if that makes sense.

The theme is also not the concept (a vague, 7-ish word plot summary) or the premise (which is a one or two sentence description of your novel with specifics). I think that's where you're getting messed up. The concept is plot-related, while your theme (what you call message) has nothing to do with the plot. It's woven into how you tell the story.

Here's a concept: Two lovers struggle aboard a sinking ship

And a premise: Aboard the powerful Titanic ship, a poor painter and a wealthy young woman fall in love, but struggle to save each other when the ship hits an iceberg

The theme: Love is timeless. Or, kids are stupid.

I haven't read Harry Potter, but from analyses online, you pulled a completely different theme out than a lot of people. Which is fine. Please be careful not to be too ham-fisted with your theme. People really don't want to be preached at, and if the "moral of the story" is obvious, they will be irritated.

But to answer your basic question, yes you can repeat the theme for each of your novels. Because the theme is completely separate from the plotline, and because as your characters evolve and their situations change, so will the specifics of how the theme is applied.

Please, please check out the extremely helpful K M Weiland writing about Theme vs Message. You may also want to read about plot and theme working together.

  • I know most authors incorporate theme as a sideshow. I do not. I believe it should be the basis that you build your novel from, but that's just me. My theme is my plot-line; therefore, your second to last paragraph doesn't apply to my situation. What I'm asking is if I can repeat the theme through a series, when the theme is where the plot comes from. I'm not asking if that's how you should write with theme. (I'm sorry if I come across as rude; I'm just trying to set things straight.) – Thomas Myron Jan 3 '16 at 17:06
2

I would say it depends. How direct (more in the lines of message) or indirect (true theme) is the theme? A theme such as 'love conquers all' can be repeated ad infinitum and always produce fresh stories because you can add variety through characters, time/place settings, etc. But if the theme is more along the lines of 'tragically, a lesbian love can never find a way within a conservative small town' then the stories will end up feeling like variations of the same basic story.

The Portuguese 19th-century writer Eça de Queirós repeated themes in his stories and they still feel fresh. One of his themes was how education will influence the adult character of a person. Another theme concerned forbidden loves (whether adultery or incest, either purposefully or accidentally) ending tragically (especially for the female). However, he was not writing series.

Since you said that your theme is the plot, I'll go with the example 'tragically, a lesbian love can never find a way within a conservative small town'. Being a series, we could have a couple looking for a place to live and in each place fighting against bigotry. For as long as each new story has a different problem (even if they all arise from bigotry), there should be space for variety. In one place they can be accepted by a liberal community and then there's a natural catastrophe that ends up pushing them out, or you can have them living quietly and out of the way and catching the eye of the local sheriff that decides he'll find a way to push them out of his town.

In a way, the series would be their search for a place where they and their love can be accepted and where they can live happily ever after, and each book/story would be another step in that direction. I doubt the example I gave could allow for a long series and retain its freshness, though. Unless they're a pair of detectives and their story is the line that unites all the crime solving adventures. The action/detective will alow for the variety that keeps the series spicy and alive, while the fight against bigotry would be a slow search ever present in the back (but forcefully pushing the couple into the action, otherwise it would be a sub-plot of little relevance).

Of course your theme must have nothing in connection with the example above but, yes, it is feasible. You just have to expertly balance repetition and novelty.

2

If your work is nothing but message, it isn't a novel, it's a polemic or an allegory. And reading the same polemic or allegory over and over would be excruciatingly boring, because there would be nothing new in each iteration.

But if you've really done the work to make your message come alive with living characters, and a plot that isn't just an excuse to beat the reader over the head with your ideas, then you could write a hundred books with the same message and never repeat yourself once. You really have to commit to letting the book live as a thing in itself, not just a soapbox.

In summary, if you find own work repetitious, it might be the writing, not the message that is to blame. For what it's worth, I agree with you about the paramount importance of the message. But consider Les Miserables and The Brothers Karamazov. They couldn't be more different in plot, characters and setting. But the message of both is very close, and neither one feels like a thinly disguised philosophy paper.

0

If, as you say in comment to Kitsune, you refuse to make a distinction between your Theme and your Plot, then the answer, due to your insistence, is that you will bore your readers by repeating exactly the same plot with all other changes just window dressing.

Part of the enjoyment of a novel (or film series) is not knowing what will happen next: If your plot is for all intents and purposes identical, that wonder vanishes. A reader of Novel 1 will quickly identify which characters in Novel 2 are the same people, quickly know who the bad guy is and the fates of all the other characters, too. They will not be surprised by any twists; they will not hold their breath when Alice, out of desperation, grabs the killer's gun and struggles to gain control of it. It will be no better than watching a rerun of mystery you saw last week. The funny lines aren't funny in the retread, the sexual tension is no longer very tense, the unexpected is entirely expected.

If you don't think that is true, then there is a distinction in your mind between theme and plot, and you should accept the terms as illustrated by Kitsune.

On the other hand if all I have said is true; find yourself another theme.

  • Since asking this question, I've discovered that it is possible to create a setting to show a theme passively. That way, I can make the plot be anything I want, as long as it stays in the setting. The theme is shown simply by telling a story in that setting. If I were to show a theme 'actively' - as I outlined in my question - then you are right. It does ultimately come down to the same general plot. – Thomas Myron Aug 24 '17 at 17:15
  • @ThomasMyron That sounds like a plan forward. I'd also say in different stories you might find ways to highlight specific aspects or ramifications of your theme, in the ways it affects walk-on or peripheral characters, and what they choose to do (to or with) the main characters that appear in every new plot. E.G. Many fictional detectives only take on certain kinds of cases (played for comic effect in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). Each mystery is different and compelling with new characters, but their moral center and world view is a constant on display in every book. – Amadeus Aug 24 '17 at 18:13
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I would say yes!

I tend to think of message as a truth confronted by one or several lies.

In my current work, I have the truth "people have a value regardless of their usefulness". It can be confronted by lies such as "strong people are better than weak people," or "smart people are better than dumb people," or "successful people are better than unsuccessful people."

That's three different stories just there.

Then you can think location. It's one story if it's taking place in a prison. Another if it's taking place in a law firm, and a third if it takes place in the wilderness.

How about adding time period? What if it took place in the middle ages? Or during the colonization of the wild west? Or during the 2nd world war? Or far into the future?

That, by the way, makes me think of "Cloud Atlas," which could be considered six different stories (or was it 5?) with the same message/theme in one book.

You may need to put some extra effort into other elements of the story, and your message might need to be a universal one, but I don't see how you would not be able to use it in more than one book.

Now, if you're writing a series, your protagonist might be battling against his lie for more than one book, meaning you're conveying the same message in several books... you're taking a bit more time and using a bit more details/events/locations/characters to do it.

You may also have your protagonist defeat his lie in the first book (following a positive arc) and then trying to convince others of the truth in successive books (where the protagonist would follow a flat arc).

This kind of setup is helped by increasingly powerful antagonists through the books, making the hero's would-be sidekicks and helpers risk more and more when embracing the truth.

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