One of the questions we ask authors who participate in our book brief feature is: “Does your book have any underlying theme, message, or moral?” The reason I ask that question is because I want to know what you want your readers thinking about when they have finished the book. I want to know if it is meant to prompt some kind of introspection or an examination of issues.
Some authors struggle with that question. Some will say the book is just intended as pure entertainment. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I think Milton Berle said that. He may have stolen it from Freud.
If you have ever taken an English Lit class, you’ve had to answer questions about the underlying meaning of a book. You’ve also found that every literary scholar has a slightly different take on what those books mean. Personally, I often wondered if the authors were asked about it, whether they might say sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and laugh at some of the wacky theories on the hidden meanings of their writing.
I think sometimes there is a message we put there. Sometimes there is a message the reader discovers, even if it wasn’t one we put there. Sometimes, the reader misses the message altogether.
In Bad Book, the protagonist, Jim Case, goes from one adventure to another between bouts of unconsciousness. The simple truth is that Bad Book was written as pure entertainment. The device of rendering the protagonist unconscious through one means or another at the end of each chapter was simply a means of segueing into the next adventure. The reason for this is not explained until the end of the book.
However, I could make an argument that the subtext of the book is a commentary on life in general. The bouts of unconsciousness represent periods of sleep and each new adventure represents the diverse challenges of a different day. The fact the hero never quite accomplishes what he wants or hopes is relatable to many of us, who find there are simply not enough hours in the day.
In my novel, UPGRADE, I did deliberately introduce elements intended to provoke some thought and reflection. In the book, a man who has always been unattractive undergoes a procedure that makes him appear attractive to others, though the face he sees in the mirror remains unchanged. Ask yourself this question: is it enough for everyone else to see you as attractive, or do you have to see what they see? I want readers to ponder where we derive our sense of ourselves, and what roles these perceptions play in the formation of our personalities. I am happy to report that a number of readers have gotten that. Some do not. I’m okay with that, because the book can be read as pure entertainment.
In Triple Dog Dare, which I co-authored with K.S. Brooks, we see a number of people’s lives rather dramatically affected by a misunderstanding over a dog. It makes some characters’ lives better and some much worse. That story is an analogy for the invisible hand that plays in all our lives. Life is chaotic. You cannot control everything. Stuff happens.
I think that’s some pretty interesting stuff. I like to know what’s between the lines. That’s why I ask the question. So tell me, what are the big, underlying issues in your latest book?
18 thoughts on “Subtext”
I think Milton Berle stole that remark from Groucho Marx!
As for do my books have underlying themes? Well, yes, several, but I don’t want to tell my readers what to look for, I want them to discover these for themselves. If they want to read superficially they will find a good story that will entertain (or scare the living shit out of) them. If, on the other hand, they want to read a little deeper, there is at least one layer, sometimes more, that the perceptive will discover.
I didn’t start out with that intention when I began writing and have discovered this myself after the first book was finished. It just seems to occur naturally, but since \I’m writing about real lives and they have many layers, I suppose it’s to be expected.
So my cigars are Havanas with a multiplicity of flavours.
I get what you mean, Ian. It is important not to coach the reader to the preferred conclusion. Still, saying you don’t want to reveal anything about the issues is analogous to saying you don’t write book descriptions because you want the readers to discover what the book is about for themselves.
People are interested in certain topics and themes. I don’t think it constitutes a spoiler to say the book addresses certain issues. It may even attract readers who might not otherwise have picked up the book.
I am getting ready to release my very first book EVER, of short stories. I would like to raise awareness about teen and tween issues, especially those of sexual abuse.
As I mentioned in Lynn’s recent post’s comments, I am now including a “Forward” or “A Note from the Author,” as I am a rape survivor and so know what trauma people go through when dealing with such “Risky Issues.” (This is the title of my book!)
If those issues are what your book is about, then I don’t know those topics would qualify as subtext. They are THE text. Nevertheless, important issues. Thanks Lorraine.
I’m working on a new mystery novel, and the underlying theme is the importance of taking personal responsibility for your actions – but, the main objective is to entertain my readers.
Making the story entertaining is an excellent way to impart information. Thanks Charlie.
I think the desire to look for themes in stories goes down to the DNA level. As human beings, we convey information through stories. No matter what society or what language, a skilled story teller is always revered. In so many societies, oral history (again, there’s that word story hiding in there) is crucial. We use stories to convey powerful important messages, especially to children. Look at all the fairy tales, from Hansel & Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood, where we use a story to convey a larger message to children (in the aforementioned, the message would be, “danger is out there, lurking right around the corner”; Sorry, I should be cheerier in the morning).
So, all stories, even if they don’t intend to, convey some overall message. Now, just how deeply that message goes is up for grabs. When people get into story analysis, they can take it overboard. I recently saw an analysis of the movie Maleficent (on Forbes.com) and the analyst believed the film to be a condemnation of capitalism, because young Stefan worked his way from a nothing servant to the job of King. The Forbes writer thought the film was a latent attack on the American Dream of going from rags to riches. Though, even he admitted maybe he was reading too much into the film. So, it is possible to take the interpretation thing too far.
But, I think all stories do have a point, beyond entertainment, even if the author doesn’t set about to make grand pronouncements. Every story that captures our heart has an underlying message that says something about the human condition. Otherwise, readers wouldn’t connect and identify with it.
Great points, RJ!
RJ, I love your comment. There is a difference between what is implied or intended, and what is inferred by a reader. Sometimes book are like a Rorschach test – it means whatever you think it means. Or it means nothing at all. But the big question for me is what would I like the reader to think about? What thoughts and introspection do I want to provoke? Sure, some people will always walk away without getting to that level, and if they were entertained by the story for a few hours, that’s fine too. But it’s cool when people “get” it.
RJ said that so well I am just going to second her statement. Excellent.
If my current WIP has a theme, it’s that you have to always remember your “self.” If you lose whatever that quirky, weird, funny ingredient is that makes you who you are…you’re lost. 🙂
That’s an excellent take-away.
I apologize in advance for this – but this discussion reminds me of an episode of South Park (Season 14, Episode 2) in which the boys read Catcher in the Rye. They’re told the book is controversial and was banned in places because of the underlying themes, so they dig in excitedly, expecting juicy naughty stuff. When they’re done, they’re so disappointed – they thought the book was horrible. They set out to write a book even worse and more stupid than Catcher in the Rye, hoping their book will get banned and they will get rich. Instead, people interpret deep meanings in their 4th grade opus and they are furious because it has no underlying meaning whatsoever. It was written purely to be offensive and stupid. The moral of this story is – sometimes there is no moral to a story. 😉
Heh. That’s the art community in a nutshell.
The underlying theme of my latest novel, Delaney’s Hope, is that prisons could work if they made some major changes. They could get men and women to see that crime is not an answer. Of course, this is a big subject, but I tried hard to just tell a story, the story of a man who feels guilty for his years of collecting a good salary from the prison system, but not really helping anyone. The death of his missionary brother changes him and he sets up a new kind of prison in a closed minimum security prison in Northern Wisconsin. He starts out small with 5 inmates and 3 staff. The book is about what happens next.
I do not allow myself any preaching in this book. I never write even what I’ve written above. No telling allowed. All showing. I hope the reader will see the theme of the book.
My novels revolve around characters who find themselves in extra-ordinary situations mostly as a result of their own actions and how they deal (or not) with the consequences given they are not super-heroes/martial arts experts/have magical powers etc.While I hope readers primarily find the books suspenseful and entertaining, I would like to think the stories will make at least some of them wonder what they might do if in a similiar situation. We all like to think we are honest and brave, but those attributes are often untested, and it’s easy as an outsider to rush to rush to judgement until you know all the intricacies surrounding another’s actions.
I’m in the process of releasing my latest, a story based on a woman having a spontaneous past-life memory of dying in the Holocaust. While I didn’t set out with any subtext in mind, for me this kind of story points up the hidden connections and spiritual relationships we may not be aware of, but which exist all the same. Thinking in these terms definitely makes life more interesting, and adds a whole new dimension (or several!) to the simple reality we see with our eyes.
My latest (which, the gods willing, will be out next week) is the final book in a trilogy that’s all about what might happen if the gods took an active interest in human affairs — to the point of knocking heads. The gods in my books take a pretty dim view of Big Politics and Big Corporations, and to the extent that there’s a message in this series, I guess that’s it. But I hope I’ve made each book entertaining, too. And in this latest book, another message is, “Don’t let the bullies shut you up.” 🙂
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