SPREY Log #12 – Hunting for a theme

Okay, before we dive back into dry writing craft, I have realized something.

I’m feeling young again. I’m feeling a specific feeling of youth I’m surprised I still remember. Many years ago I was an actual literature nerd, actually interested in reading, literature history and the technical and practical aspects of the craft of writing. Then I got a taste of literature how it was taught at the university I studied at. Not saying all universities are bad. That one probably was. It made me lose all passion and interest in pursuing writing and reading at all within a year. If that was “real” literature I didn’t want to do anything with it. Now I feel this is gone again, finally, after many years and I’m back to where I was.

And just to be clear, I’m not blaming the university, after all no one held a gun to my head and told me I may never read a book again. Everything that happened, I did to myself, in my head. I just needed the wisdom of many years to come to realize it and undo it. I would even go so far to say I dumbed myself down from then on, further manipulating my further endeavors for the worse. How could or should I ever succeed with any writing if deep inside I didn’t want to do anything to do with it?

I consider myself very lucky that I got behind it after all. Now I can deal with everything I must deal with in peace and without self-manipulation. Writing and literature should have always been a part of me, to whatever extent. I think this will improve my art, not distract from it. And just as a general reminder, me and you do not need anyone’s approval to pursue literature and writing and learning about it. The knowledge is out there, not discriminating, it’s there for everyone. And it wants you to learn about it and use it in your own writing as you see fit. And as anyone can publish books today, truly no one can hold you back but you. Apparently you have to be confident but humble. Confident, so that you don’t give up when you don’t get anyone’s approval first, and we’re talking years possibly, but always humble so that you don’t stop listening and working on your craft.

And now back to writing SPREY.

After last blogpost I made myself a list of bullet points what I have to establish in order for the story climax to work. And fascinatingly, I got a complete looking list of what belongs in the first and second act. This is spectacular to me, as writing had been an incredibly difficult cascade of guesswork for me before. The distance to bridge between first and third act seemed to be impossible. Never did it occur to me that not all story parts are equal, independent from each other, just boxes to tick to hit the “right” act structure. Pretty much everything before the climax is dictated by the climax. There is no guesswork. And now I see how this structure is the bones that hold the flesh of the story together. I was just sculpting the flesh before. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there was a scene where Rich is about to get sacrificed but then is saved by Willard? Isn’t that villain monologue lovely? I can still have ideas like that and see whether I can work with them, but they can never substitute the underlying structure.

But how can it be that I have SPREY current state now with it’s working structure without knowing my theme yet? Shouldn’t the theme sit one level above the climax and govern it? I’m starting to have a suspicion that I was just assuming a new structural model for my works again without fully understanding it yet. But through research I found a new clue. Theme is not message! A theme is asking and describing a difficult to answer problem or question about the human experience, a message is offering an answer to it. By design, the message can only be flawed, as the most interesting problems about being human absolutely have no easy answers and no matter how educated you are, your own perspective will never be a hundred percent and always right. Also, people tend to not like being preached to. Luckily for me, it doesn’t seem to be the job of a writer to solve existential problems and the human nature once and for all. It is my job to unveil that a problem exists and what makes it so hard to solve it in the first place. And that is what theme does. Which questions do I ask and look at about being human through my characters and what’s happening to them? I can absolutely have a clear theme, but it is not me saying something is so and so, it is rather me asking things like “If love always wins, what is about the villain who is also loved and loves? Is his love not good enough?” That is actually hard to answer and I would have to look at multiple cases or facettes of a case within my story. If my climax is the story core and tangible backbone, my theme is the soul. In a way it is ethereal. And yes, you can absolutely ignore it and create something down to earth without dealing with any of this. But I guess the best stories, those that stay in your memory, do ask those difficult questions.

With SPREY my struggle to find one red line might also stem from just throwing a lot of things together that sounded entertaining and interesting by themselves. But this also results in a mashup of themes, leaving us with no clear winner or direction on that front. Let’s take a look at what we got:

1 Love as a terrifying force

If you think about SPREY from an inverse perspective, a whole biker gang gets killed because they didn’t account for selfless sacrifices made out of love. Willard and Rich each get into mortal danger to protect each other, another character dies for people who aren’t even present. That is terrifying from an outside view. Love, that is regarded as a “soft” power actually lures people into death overriding their instinct for self preservation? Love gets people killed who stand in the way of lovers? Well, unfortunately the slashers are pretty bad people themselves, so in this specific case it will be hard to feel sorry for them.

2 The individual versus the group

Maybe I should rather go for the individual vs group angle. A human is a creature that must exist both as an individual and as a member of a group or groups to be happy, but in actuality humans are never happy. We get extreme cases like Rich who is a struggling lone wolf or on the other end of the spectrum the slashers who literally operate like a hive. And then there’s Willard who finds his own balance as someone who wants to be part of a group, any group, but just doesn’t seem to fit.

3 Are humans trying to domesticate themselves into a functioning civilization since the beginning of time

The slashers themselves as a concept ask a very difficult question. We think bounding together to a tribal group was what helped people drive civilization forward. But here a group has formed that actively undoes civilization, rejects rules anyone outside of them made and uses group synergy to harm and kill people. And they build nothing up of their own, they just destroy. Are they a mirror of us when we can’t get over our selfish desires to build a society that works, a failed civilization? This is a tough one.

4 Man vs (human) nature

And what about good and evil and how being amongst some of the most evil people imaginable teaches Willard to be a better balanced human being? As I said, theme is ethereal, doesn’t give easy answers. Ha, wait, maybe this is a good one – the slashers are everything we do not want to have in our modern, civil, urbanized society. They are a form of nature’s revenge. But it is not the environment that comes for us, it is the parts of the human nature that we don’t want to acknowledge or deal with, our own potential for evil. It comes back to haunt us, no matter what we do to shut it out. And Willard is us, he is very cultivated and civilized, first in utter disbelief about facing actual and unapologetic evil, then part of it, then out of it. Rich isn’t that severely affected because he grew up amongst evil already, there is nothing to be disillusioned about.

I will think about that.
See you next blogpost!