Themes: Better Writing Through Strategic Repetition

This past week, I learned something wondrous about the writing of themes, with the help of Professor James Hynes (the novelist and writing instructor) and Stephen King (the author and demigod).

This thing might be common knowledge to the more experienced novelist, but it was nigh unto epiphany-worthy for me. I would therefore like to share a first person, nonfiction narrative of the events leading up to the epiphany in hopes that someone besides me might use the knowledge therein to write awesomer stuff.

Many years ago in a land called Illinois, I was pretty good at writing funny songs. Since I fancied myself a playwright as well as a lyricist, twenty-something-year-old me thought the thing to do was to write a musical.

Good job, twenty-something-year-old me. If you’d have told present-day me your plans over coffee, in a parallel universe somewhere, present-day me would have laughed in your face pretty good.

Anyway, in those days, I’d heard an underrated score writer named Kurt Heineke speak of how he did not write movie scores in order from beginning to end. Instead, he would write a theme for each character. Then, whenever the character appeared on screen a variation on that theme would play in the background: fast for drama, slow for sadness, drums for battle scenes, piano for melodrama… Different musical arrangements would be used to set the mood, but they all had the same melody at their core.

For evidence of other writers employing melodic themes effectively, look no further than John William’s legendary Star Wars score. The empire, the princess, and the triumphant hero all have their own themes. The visuals and the dialogue could be taken away completely, and you would know who should be on screen based on the soundtrack. Or themes can be used to foreshadow things we’re not seeing yet, like the subtle strains of the imperial march in Episode II as Anakin confides in Padme about his recent massacre of the sand people.

In the astonishingly different Ghostbusters score, we tend to remember the catchy, pop-style songs, but when Dana’s on screen, her theme takes the form of a sweet, little melody being played on a distant theremin.

Even far less epic television scores use the strategy of theme variation. Remember the happy-go-lucky Brady Bunch song? It was both an upbeat, musical bookend for starting / wrapping up each episode and a mournful trumpet solo when Marsha has a moral dilemma or Greg hurts Jan’s feelings or whatever.

Today, I’ve retired from play / score writing in favor of writing books (and the peasants rejoiced), but I’ve only been working in this medium for a half-dozen years. Like any new convert, I’ve been struggling to understand some basics, such as exposition, word count, and what makes crucial scene-setting different from boring, extraneous rubbish. As a playwright, I’d gotten used to the actors, costumers, and property masters setting the scenes and telling the actual stories. All I did was give them snappier dialogue and some stage directions with which to do it.

With a book, there are no accents, hairstyles, architecture, dance crazes, idiosyncrasies, or details unless I, the writer, put them there.

So I struggled. And I quagmired.

I’d been trying to perpetrate the literary equivalent of a comb-over, turning my forty word paragraphs into forty-five words in hopes of concealing my story’s bald spots, as I listened to a creative writing lecture by Professor James Hynes. He spoke of setting, time period, and characters as the tools a writer uses to reflect an overall theme. The peeling paint and leafless trees of a once vibrant, well-kept estate may evoke the physical or moral decay of the people who live there. A foolish decision the protagonist made when he was small might come up again and again in the form of a manipulative antagonist who’s great at finding weaknesses and exploiting them.

Once Professor Hynes alerted me to this phenomenon, it dawned on me that themes in a book and themes in a musical score are amazingly similar. They’re both strategic repetition used to build a better story around your protagonist and carry him to the next part of his journey.

The very next movie I saw was the late remake of Stephen King’s incredible classic, It. The theme of It, aside from eye-widening, teeth-gritting, ass-clenching terror, is “United, we stand.” A bunch of misfit kids are tormented by the entire town of Derry long before the apparition known as Pennywise appears, but “it,” like the predatory people of Derry, works most effectively when he can isolate his victims. The children help each other stay alive two (or more) times before coming together to fight Pennywise at the climax of the picture.

I guess the take-away is that not everything we were told in English class was wrong, but, “Quit repeating yourself,” might have been an over simplification. “Quit being redundant” is valid, but repeating yourself in interesting ways is good storytelling when it helps get a specific point across to your readers. Hell, some of the best loved literature in print is older than the exclamation point. In those days, repetition was the most effective tool they knew of to stress their points.

So take that, high school! You were wrong, and the dumb armatures with life experience and no tenure were right. Again.

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