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So, I'm a big picture person. What I like best, in life, and when I write, is bringing a lot of very different elements together. But as a result, both my fiction and non-fiction tend to be overstuffed, with too many different themes and ideas and ambiguities for them to really hook the reader.

But when I try to simplify, and write on one topic or one theme, it either becomes digressive or I lose interest. Is there a way to gain clarity without losing complexity? Or conversely, to bring the reader along for a journey that goes all over the place?

  • Is this a self-criticism or one your readers have had? – eyeballfrog Dec 13 '18 at 17:17
  • @eyeballfrog Good question --it's how I've interpreted feedback I've gotten, but not necessarily something anyone has explicitly told me. – Chris Sunami Dec 13 '18 at 17:43
  • You may want to consider posting examples of the feedback, as otherwise this may be an XY problem. – eyeballfrog Dec 13 '18 at 17:50
  • Real life is more complex than a written story (or essay, or whatever). An author is a painter, grabbing the general shape of something (real or imagined) and picking out recognizable details for the observer. If you want infinite detail and complexity, you put a frame around a window. Writing is implicitly about curation. – Jedediah Dec 13 '18 at 21:28
  • David Foster Wallace does this well as a fiction author. He does it in Infinite Jest by spending a section talking about a character or one story line and then, in a separate section, jumping to another story line. He keeps each part very distinct until it's set in the reader's mind, then he slowly starts weaving all of the stories together. – danjuggler Dec 13 '18 at 22:25
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A beloved teacher once told me that authors should not worry about theme. It's the readers' and critics' job to figure out what themes are in a piece. It's the author's job to tell a good story. Create great characters, move them around, have them interact. That's what we do as writers.

If you have strong feelings about a topic, they will appear in your work without having to explicitly put them in. In fact, the pieces I've read that are written to a theme tend to be heavy-handed and tedious. Just write a good story.

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    I agree with this; so I won't answer. Write your story, keep things moving, philosophize without giving us a three page (or one page) soliloquy (just turn it into an argument between characters, that adds the tension you need to get through it). If you find a theme in your work afterward, you can sharpen it in a rewrite. If you don't, focus rewrites on making the story move better, focus on pacing and dialogue and not using sight as the only sense people have. Don't worry about the theme. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 13 '18 at 14:54
  • I agree with this in theory, but in practice, it's only idea-driven, thematically ambitious material that makes me excited to write. When I'm not driven by those interests, my writing loses all momentum. – Chris Sunami Dec 13 '18 at 15:34
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    @ChrisSunami I think the point here (for you) isn't to avoid themes (if you have them), just don't worry about too many themes. Whatever drives you to write, as long as readers remain interested in what happens next, I don't think they care about what we authors wanted to write about. When I read, I certainly am not looking for themes, and personally if I find them prominent then to me it distracts from the story; I want to argue with the author directly -- breaking my reading reverie. So use all the themes you want to get words on the page. Just make sure readers keep turning pages. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Dec 13 '18 at 16:18
  • If themes are what make you excited to write, then use that! It's great to've found the thing that sparks you! After a draft or two you might want to have some good honest readers who will help tone down the "theme-y" bits and punch up the characters and actions. – Ken Mohnkern Dec 14 '18 at 13:54
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It sounds like what you want to create is literature rather than just a work that might soon be forgotten. The degree of skill and talent required because of the difficulty of your task is considerable, but don’t oversimplify.

If you have a story with complexity, compelling characters and quality - write it. Readers might wonder where you are going, but as long as they enjoy the ride those pages will turn.

Imagine Les Miserables if it were on one theme only, hitting only one note - it might have been a case of Victor who? It has a main theme, but digresses and philosophizes and regrets.

War and Peace would have been a much shorter work had it only been about a cunning general doing the unthinkable and being believed to be utterly incompetent because he was luring an overconfident emperor to his destruction.

There are enough readers out there who enjoy complexity - there must be. I know that I am thrilled when I discover that an author is doing more than just telling the story promised.

I suppose the question boils down to must one simplify things and pander to the broadest possible audience or, to paraphrase Murrow, educate and elevate as well as entertain. Take the high road and take pride in your work. You cannot be alone up there.

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    There may be some truth to this. When you're trying harder things, you're going to fail more, and it's going to take longer to get it right. // With that said, I guess I'm at a point in life where I'm willing to try less ambitious projects. I just find it harder to get engaged in them. Maybe I should make that a separate question. – Chris Sunami Dec 13 '18 at 15:39
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Ambiguity is probably a lack of intentional structure. Themes (like most story elements that exist outside the text in the reader's mind) need a beginning, middle, and end state to feel intentional.

The beginning establishes the status quo. It is the theme in its un-examined state, a naive or fairytale version. The theme in this state is so simple it can be expressed in just a few words: "love conquers all", "truth will out", "stay with your own kind". This version of the theme is presented as a universal fact (even if it isn't actually true).

The middle is where conflict or complication challenges this naive view. It takes the theme deeper, and makes it specific by applying it directly to characters and situations in the story. I've seen this called "the message" (probably because it is explicitly stated in the text, whereas the theme is not) but it's essentially the theme in a complicated state, with caveats and exceptions where the theme is no longer a "universal truth" – either the characters are fighting against it, or the plot is throwing try/fail cycles, or boy has lost girl. This might happen more than once and to different characters. The same naive theme, played out against multiple situations that seem to break or defy the theme.

In certain genres, thriller and horror for example, the theme-progression might be inverted. The simple version is the conclusion rather than the beginning, but it takes the whole story to break down the protagonist's resistance, or for the pieces to fall into place. A more complicated theme becomes simplified through reveals, or by removing the protagonist's options to escape the theme. (For example, a complicated real-world theme that says people are neither good or evil, evolves to "pure evil exists" as the other reasonable options are removed).

The end is of course the resolution(s) of the specific versions. Either the theme arrives back at its naive conclusion, or the narrative rejects the universal theme to emphasize the limits of the naive version.

If the naive theme is applied across various characters, and each conclusion is different, it might be interpreted as character failures – a parable usually explores a common theme with "good" and "bad" examples. Modern narratives tend to use character flaws to self-complicate, once protagonists stop resisting the theme is allowed to be "true". Antagonists are often "wrong" because they defy the theme (successfully, at least for a while) more than they directly confront the main characters.

You can structure a theme, the same as you can structure character or a romantic relationship, by plotting its development on a timeline. I don't agree that you should ignore themes entirely and they will subconsciously emerge in your writing – that is called subtext, which sure can be a theme but can also be unintentional. Themes should be intentional and reinforced by the narrative. They should be presented as in-world truths that evolve through states of reject/accept by the characters.

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The question is what you want to achieve with your writing. Is it self-expression or do you aim for popular success?

There has been research on the topical structure of bestsellers. Bestsellers usually have a limited number of topics, and in most bestsellers one topic makes up about one third of the text. Think John Grisham. Each of his books deals mostly with laywers, courts, the law, and so on. That's his brand, and he makes sure every book he writes contains lots of what the reading public expects of him. So if you want to hit the New York Times bestseller list, it is my belief that you need to limit the number of your topics and have one prime topic that makes up a large part of your book. (There's more on which topics to choose, which to avoid, and how to combine them, but that wasn't your question.)

On the other hand, there are thousands of books being published that do not aim to appeal to a majority of the population and that devitate from the typical structure of bestsellers in many ways. I like to use the example of James Joyce, whose writings are close to the opposite end of the continuum from Grisham. So if you write to put the content of your mind on paper, you can do whatever the hell you want. You may not get published, though, or if you do, you may not get read by many.

So these are the extremes, and that is your choice.

What do you want?

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