Recently, I thought it would be interesting to share a provocative quote about writing with my friends in the writing community and ask for their responses. This was the quote I sent out.
“I don’t know how other storytellers function, but in my case I never start with the theme of a story. My stories are about something, to be sure, but I never know what that is till I’m in the process of writing them. I have to start with pictures, images, scenes, moods—like bits of dreams, or fragments of half-forgotten films. “
— Philip Pullman
This is from Pullman’s thought-provoking book of essays, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling.
I’ll start off by giving my own reaction.
This quote speaks to me powerfully, as I’m in the midst of drafting what I consider to be my first serious attempt at a novel, and while I’m aware of various sub-themes and ideas percolating, I can’t yet say I’ve fixed upon the major theme.
Oh, I had some notion when I started: This is what my novel will be about. That’s about as safe a prediction as a parent looking at a newborn baby and saying: “She’s going to grow up to be an engineer.”
I’ve allowed greater wisdom to prevail, and I’m happy enough now to say, that while I have a few good guesses, I still don’t know what my main theme will be.
And I think that’s okay. Pullman is right. Start with images, scenes, characters—in whatever way storytelling begins for you. If there is any depth at all to what you are writing, your theme will emerge. But only in its own damn good time.
That’s my take but clearly others feel differently. Here’s my first of two installments providing the answers that writers have generously shared with me. Feel free to add your own thoughts below.
Starting a story without a theme seems impossible. Why would you write any particular sentence and not some other? Wouldn’t it all be arbitrary?
Recently, I had insight into this perennial question. I found a sequence of chords and tones on my guitar that resonated through my chest and pleased me greatly. I resolved to write down the pattern. It took two months to scribe my little tune and I learned that notating music is a very different experience than feeling it in your body.
I revised, refined, and edited. It was a strenuous ordeal, but the result expressed about 90% of what I heard and felt when I played. I’d started with a feeling and ended up with a score. Looking back, I don’t see how else I could have done it. Now I better understand writers who start without a theme. Maybe it’s about how one’s brain is organized.
William X. Adams, author of psychological sci-fi. See www.psifibooks.com.
Thinking about this question, I realized for the first time that I mostly do start with a theme. At the same time it occurred to me that when I look at what I’ve written, I mean everything, poetry, diary, short stories, novels, novel fragments, it’s possible that what pleases me the most is material that did NOT begin with a theme. This has been far from obvious to me until this moment. All my writing life I’ve seen that some of what I produce seems organic and some seems forced, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on the basis for the difference, though I’ve instinctively preferred what seemed to me to be “organic.” Now it seems to me that “organic” (for me) means that the story originates with some mood that inhabits a specific scene. An old lady who is sad while waiting for a bus, seated on a bench beside a young man listening to bass-heavy music on earbuds. So maybe for me the best way to approach writing of any kind is to begin with a mood being experienced in a particular setting, developing a story from that – what does the sad old lady do? The theme then shows itself: organic. And my nastiest, though arguably least competent, critic (myself) begins to be almost satisfied.
But how to apply this to long fiction? I suppose it has to be scene by scene, or paragraph by paragraph, or anyway piece by piece, depending on the structure of the story.
Short answer: I think for me Pullman’s approach is likely to be the most fruitful, but I never understood that until I read this quote and started thinking about how to respond to the question. Thanks!!
I think my writing is better and I am definitely more inspired if I start with a vision or a scene that sets the mood. Sometimes those scenes just hang around in my brain for a while (years even) until they find a home in the right story. I’m still trying to incorporate my “bone baby” from one of my NYC Midnight stories into something more substantial. I just have this vision of a baby made out of bones that the main protagonist is trying to rescue even knowing that it is fruitless and the baby behaves like a real baby except it can’t make noises etc (except for rattling its bones). And the baby gradually gets quiet and goes still…
Sharon E. Hesterlee
In my experience, stories’ themes and the generative images at their heart are inseparable. I generally glimpse a story, in the form of a disturbing or perplexing image, or maybe the fragment of a dream, long before I sit down to write the story. If an image starts to haunt me, I start asking myself how and why it’s speaking to me, and if that image is rooted in some deeper narrative or question. As an example, my novel The Wonder That Was Ours (Dzanc Books, 2018) is about a viral outbreak on a cruise ship and the quarantine of a small Caribbean island, its last port of call, in response to fears that the island has been infected by the ship’s passengers. (To be clear, The Wonder That Was Ours is a work of literary fiction. When I was writing the novel, many people privy to the plot thought I was at work on a sci fi novel; now, in the middle of a pandemic, I wish that had been the case.) Neither the novel’s plot nor its themes appeared fully-formed. The kernel for the novel was a conversation with a friend who, as a crew member on a large cruise ship, was often responsible for escorting belligerent or otherwise disruptive passengers down the proverbial gangplank at the nearest port of call. One day, she had to escort a ‘failed’ suicide from the ship and deposit her in a foreign country, because the cruise ship line did not want to assume liability for passengers who might harm themselves on board.
The conversation haunted me, and for months, I kept having visions of a woman in the most desperate and disassociated state standing alone on the sprawling dock of a Caribbean terminal, watching the ship she just left sail out to sea and trying to imagine her next steps. I wondered if that woman would gain a new lease on life or simply succumb to the horror of her situation, but only the image was really clear in my mind. The fact that the image started haunting me, that it would pop into my mind at odd moments over the following months, suggested that my friend’s story had tapped into something deep in my psyche, my social consciousness, and my moral conscience, and that the image might be just one element in a larger vision or more extended story.
Seven years later, I completed a novel about the alienating effects of 21st century capitalism, and the lack of accountability in a cruise ship industry that has caused untold damage to the oceanic environment, the social fabric and economic stability of tourist monocultures in the Caribbean, and even the passengers and ship workers who lack adequate protections against disease and injury, or any legal recourse in incidents like the one my friend described. (Most cruise ships, as debates about Covid-19 bailouts have revealed, are registered abroad and aren’t subject to US laws.) It’s a long leap from an image of a traumatized woman standing on a dock to the themes I’ve just outlined, but I now see that the conversation with my friend and the resulting image of an abandoned woman provided seeds for a novel about the ways certain elements of modern capitalism has left so many of us—and so much wreckage—in its polluted wake. In that instance and many others, a project started with a haunting image, but an image that haunted me in the first place because it spoke to concerns and themes that have occupied me throughout my adult life.
Thanks to my excellent writer friends for sharing their creative processes so admirably. You’ll find more responses in Part Two, coming up soon.