Monday, August 6, 2018

Making a Theme – Writing Beyond the Plot


In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, a father and son are trying to survive in a dying world, staying alive as resources run out and those few remaining people are turning on each other in the most horrible of ways. Every day is a struggle for survival, with death one of many threats lingering in their world. These are the standard elements of a post-apocalyptic story, so what makes this such a particularly good novel?

A good novel will bring the reader something more than a story. Obviously, a story should convey a message; a takeaway after the last word. However, all the words leading up to that should shape themselves around a set of ideas that are repeatedly reinforced throughout the novel. These are the themes, and they take any story to the next level.

Any story should have a few simple themes – more than one simple theme, but six might be too many – that are reinforced throughout the narrative. They do not have to be large in scope and scale. The best ones are as simple as “the importance of a strong independent nature” or “the nostalgic beauty of the hero’s hometown.” As long as it says something more than, “he loves chocolate,” it can help build the story’s message. However, if the story is about a person’s diet problems, sugar addiction, fight with diabetes, etc., the chocolate thing is allowed because it is a theme that creates conflict. By the end, all those themes should become the chorus that sings out the novel’s meaning – if it’s a real good novel.

In The Road, we see in every fashion how humanity has been stripped away from the world. This is not only shown in the actions and descriptions of the many adversaries, but in the simplest of points. The main characters – the man and his son – are never named. They talk with each other but names are never mentioned, as if the most fundamental social construct has vanished. Adversaries are avoided – just as nameless as our heroes. This post-apocalyptic world is not just devoid of humans, the writing takes every opportunity to show how humanity is gone. This is a simple theme.

This leads us to the man and his son. The two are all that each other has, and they survive from one day to the next, the father continuing to make sacrifices so his son can live another day. Though society has broken down, we see how even in the worst of conditions, their bond as father and son is all the more unbreakable. The importance of family carries throughout the book.

As they travel, we only know their goal is to survive, and to head south before winter comes. But with their actions, with how they discuss how to avoid dangerous situations, we see how they still stand for something good in the world. As other people descend into barbarism and cannibalism, the father and son hold true to an ideal that may no longer exist anywhere else. As their struggle becomes more difficult and the tension builds, we see how much they struggle to hold on to their beliefs. These ideals become incredibly important.

And throughout their travels through a world falling apart, moments of joy remind us of the better parts of the human experience. Chapters of pushing a shopping cart of possessions through the worst of conditions allow us to witness the joy of simple comforts such as a warm bed, a complete meal, a full night’s sleep. Moments of appreciation exist throughout the book.

I’m not going to spoil this novel – it’s well worth the read. But to address the question presented at the beginning of this post, what makes this so good are how the themes are presented. Even in a world stripped down to the barest of bones, these themes create a very full, rich experience. This goes well beyond a post-apocalyptic story just for that reason – it’s not about the end of humanity, it’s about the importance of humanity.

Whether Cormac McCarthy wrote the story based on those themes or found the themes while writing the story is something I may never know. However, when writing your novel, keep in mind a few of those themes, and be open to seeing some more pop up as you progress -- and rewriting as necessary to make them stand out.

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