Thematic writing: a method
By Bruce Harris
Author, and Editor of the Writing Short Fiction website
firstwriter.com – Wednesday August 20, 2014
Writing to themes can be seen as an interesting discipline or a frustrating restriction. It is more popular with magazine editors than it is with competition organisers, probably mostly because the former want to keep the submissions to manageable levels, while the latter want as many entries as possible to increase revenue.
My own view is that, occasionally but definitely not permanently, it is worthwhile for testing out imagination and resources, and I have written thematically often enough now to have developed an approach reliable enough to consistently get results.
Five minutes' demonstration is worth sixty of explanation, so I will start by referring to the two stories which have been short-listed in Red Line competitions
In the first case, the theme was "power", and I began by concentrating on avoiding what appears to me the most obvious interpretations. "Power" brings to mind the exercise of it, militarily, domestically or hierarchically, and begs questions about those on both the wielding and receiving ends. Perhaps not so blatant a reading is to do with the more subtle powers of art and science to influence or even drastically alter people's lives. In this case, I chose science, and the largely understated potential of genetics to change human life as we know it. If the time really is approaching when babies can be virtually manufactured to order, what impact is that kind of power likely to have on our predominantly libertarian view of birth endowment? If ability, sexuality, disability and predilections for illnesses could all be controlled, how would that power be exercised and by whom?
The next step is to decide about first or third person writing. In the space of a few thousand words, scrupulous balance is difficult, and has a menace of dullness. However, in the case of the power of genetics over unborn babies, the extremes are so drastically unsympathetic that they can hardly be represented in any other way but conflict, and to only represent one view would sound preachy, so third person is needed to allow both. I chose a third person double track approach, with the manipulative side a company offering genetic engineering packages and the libertarian side a comedy performance near to the company's headquarters.
Finally, the actual people: a young couple approaching parenthood, realistic, rich and ruthless, and the company representative offering them a precision deal; and the comedian believing implicitly in a more anarchic view and capable of winning empathy as well as laughs. The result was "Blue Genes", now in the Power issue.
The second theme was "Bodies". The obvious starting points included sports, modelling or pornography, all of which are almost always presented as male for the first, female for the second, and heterosexual for the third. I chose to combine the second and third, and represent them as gay. The first or third person choice was straightforward; first seemed much more appropriate, the subject not being about balanced views or interpretations.
The character I chose was a young man beginning a career in gay pornography. A double track again seemed to fit, though this time it was between the now and the then of the young man's life. "Terms of Surrender" was included in the Bodies issue and won third place in competition.
Non-Red Line examples include a piece I wrote in connection with the impending anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. While the actual anniversary isn't until next year, various events have been taking place in the build up, and one of them was a short story competition held in aid of the Hougoumont restoration (Hougoumont being a part of the ex-battlefield). The brief was to write a relatively short story of 1,500 words maximum on the theme of the Battle of Waterloo.
The most obvious route here seemed to be the battle itself, which was very long and very dramatic but has been widely described in both factual and fictional accounts, so I inclined towards the before or after. After has probably been more widely covered than before, so I concentrated on before. It also seemed to me that male characters would almost certainly predominate, so I thought about how to make the main protagonists female and opted, again, for first person writing, the experience probably being one which would never be forgotten in the rest of a long life.
I chose a sixteen year old girl, taking a picnic with her friend in the woods near their village in the Namur district of what is now Belgium, not far from the Waterloo battlefield and a few days before the battle. They were using a particular shaded hiding place they knew, because of strict parental instructions not to go too far from the village or allow themselves to be seen by soldiers. The full story of the "Boy Deserter", which won third place in the competition and was included in the competition anthology, was also in my collection First Flame (see www.bruceharris.org); for the purposes of this article, it is another example of the same kind of thematic method.
Themes can sometimes seem so bizarre as to defy any coherent methodology. Perhaps the strangest was the "3 in 1" exercise, in a competition in aid of the Group, which asked competitors to include a black queen chess piece, a vase of flowers and a ten pound note. Lots of lateral thinking required for that, but my effort, called "The Fellowship of Victims" and set in Berlin in 1947, made it into the competition anthology; details are on my site again, and the anthology is in a good cause.
No forms of writing can be standardised to too great an extent, but some kind of structure always helps, and my own thinking on thematic writing does seem to get results for at least some of the time.
About the Author
An anthology of 25 stories by Bruce Harris which have all won prizes, commendations or listings in UK fiction competitions, First Flame, was published in October 2013 by www.spmpublications.com.
In addition to second prize in the 2014 Momaya Press Competition, his awards list includes Writers' Bureau (twice); Grace Dieu Writers' Circle (five times); Biscuit Publishing, Yeovil Prize, Milton Keynes Speakeasy (three times), Exeter Writers, Fylde Writers, Brighton Writers (three times), Wells Literary Festival, Wirral Festival of Firsts, New Writer, Segora, Sentinel Quarterly, Swale Life, Havant Literary Festival, Southport Writers' Circle, Lichfield Writers' Circle, Cheer Reader (three times), TLC Creative, 3into1 Short Story Competition, Meridian, Five Stop Story (three times), JB Writers' Bureau, Red Line (twice) and Bridport Prize and Bristol Prize longlists. He also edits Writing Short Fiction at http://writingshortfiction.org: a free resource for all who write or who want to write short stories.