Life is But a Theme

Long-time readers of this blog have noted that I’ve explored four of the five components of fiction—character, plot, setting, and style. There’s been quite a clamoring for me to complete the set, and today I’ll do so by discussing theme.

You can think of the theme of a story as the central topic, the universal idea or message, the overall lesson or moral. I’ve said before that all stories are about the human condition and that’s because we choose human themes. Until we deal with other sentient entities, that’s all we really have.

ThemeHere’s another way to think about theme. It’s easy to identify the characters, plot, and setting of a story. Think of those as the ‘real life’ parts of the story, the parts you can visualize with ease. Now imagine key parts of that ‘real life’ getting mapped to a different plane, a place of Platonic ideals. Imagine lines connecting specifics in the story to generalizations in the other plane, concrete items linked to a realm of abstract concepts.

For example, an old woman in a story is linked to the idea of Age itself. A young man going through his first experience of adulthood is linked to the idea of Coming of Age. The growing love between two characters maps to the idea of Falling in Love. You get the idea.

There needn’t be only one theme in a story, and often you can identify more than one. Also, it isn’t necessary for the writer to spell out what the story’s themes are; in fact it’s much better to allow readers to infer them.

Let’s identify some themes in famous literature. Take 1984 by George Orwell. It includes themes such as ever-increasing government control, the loss of individual freedom, and the dangers of advanced technology.

Consider Love Story by Erich Segal. Some of its themes include the idea of opposites being attracted to each other, the sacrifices made for love, the rebellion of a child against his parents, and the notion of love conquering all adversities.

One of my favorites, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne, also contains themes. These include the dangers of advanced technology, aiding the oppressed against oppressors, and the notion that revenge can drive you insane.

Is it possible to write a story without a theme? I’m not sure. Even if the writer has no particular theme in mind, readers and critics can likely discover themes the author didn’t intend, but are nevertheless present.

For a beginning writer who’s overwhelmed by the amount of writing stuff to remember, I suggest concentrating on character, plot, and setting (in that order of importance) without focusing on theme or style as much. Chances are a well-written story will have one or more themes, even if the writer doesn’t consciously strive toward one.

As always, post a comment if you agree, disagree, remain confused, or are just thankful that all five components of fiction have finally been addressed by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Do You Know the Ropes?

For any job, there’s a body of knowledge and a skillset you must acquire before you can do it well. Having that knowledge is called “knowing the ropes,” ever since the time when sailors aboard tall ships had to know which line trimmed which sail.

know the ropesYou want to be a writer? You’ll have to know the ropes of that profession, at least to some extent. Just as a sailing ship’s ropes seem confusing at first and more understandable after time spent studying, so the ‘ropes’ of writing can be learned. Specifically, I want to address those tricky English language rules you learned long ago in grade school and have since forgotten.

Why is it important for you to re-learn those rules? If you send your story to a publishing house, and the editor sees you haven’t mastered the basics of English, it won’t matter how compelling your story is. It’s just not worth the editor’s time, so your story gets rejected. If you self-publish, your lack of knowledge will be out there for readers to see. Your story might be captivating, but readers get tripped up when you demonstrate an ignorance of English. You’ll get bad reviews.

Here are a few of those rules your Language Arts teacher tried to instill:

  • Affect and Effect. Usually, ‘affect’ is a verb meaning influence, while ‘effect’ is a noun meaning result, as in: Adding salt affected the taste, which produced a satisfying effect on her palate.
  • Farther vs. Further. ‘Farther’ refers to linear distance only. ‘Further’ refers to types of extent other than distance, as in: As he watched her run farther in the marathon, his excitement increased further.
  • Its vs. It’s. “It’s” is an exception to the rule about apostrophe-s indicating possession. In this one case, “It’s” is a contraction for ‘it is.’ Use ‘its’ for possession, as in: The dog gnawed its bone.
  • Lie and Lay. This one’s complicated, but in present tense, use ‘lie’ when there’s no direct object, and use ‘lay’ when there is (when you lay an object down). I’ll lay this pillow here, and then you can lie down on it.
  • Punctuation inside or outside quotes. Commas and periods go inside quotation marks; semicolons and colons go outside; exclamation and question marks go inside if part of the quotation, and outside if not.
  • That and Which. ‘That’ introduces restrictive clauses and ‘which’ introduces nonrestrictive clauses as in: The blogpost that elicited the most comments was the one about English rules, which can be confusing. The clause after ‘that’ restricts the sentence’s meaning; the clause after ‘which’ doesn’t.
  • Very Unique.   ‘Unique’ means one of a kind. Therefore nothing can very unique, or quite unique.
  • Was vs. Were. Use ‘was’ for verbs in the indicative mood, where you’re stating something that is or could be true, as in: If I was to go to your place this afternoon, we could watch the game. Use ‘were’ for verbs in the subjunctive mood, where you’re stating opinions, wishes, etc., as in: If you were a player on the team, you’d get me free tickets to every game.

These are just some of the tricky English rules you need to know. I know it seems confusing, and you might be tempted to give up writing. But if the story’s in you and wants to get out, you won’t give up.

You can learn the ropes by any or all of these methods:

  1. Join a critique group, and benefit from the knowledge of other amateur writers
  2. Take an adult English class at a local community college
  3. Use a word processor that highlights grammatical mistakes and poor word choices
  4. As you write, if you’re unsure of the proper usage or phrasing, mark the sentence for later review, and look up the answer on a trusted website.

You don’t have to know all the ropes, but enough so your editor doesn’t gag while reading your manuscript. As for me, I’m no English teacher, I’m just—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Know Your Rights

I blogged about copyrights awhile back, but this topic is a little different. Today’s discussion is about your rights to your story.


No, the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights is not where you go to find out about them. Your story rights are embodied in the laws of the country you live in, and by agreement with the country where your publisher is.

How do rights differ from copyrights? The copyright (©) to your written story is something you own and always retain. Think of the copyright as a bundle or collection of individual rights. If you want your story published or distributed by someone else (the usual case), then you’ll likely end up agreeing by contract to transfer part of that bundle of rights, usually in exchange for payment to you. But you always keep the copyright.

Rights are exclusive in nature, meaning you are granting one, and only one, publisher the right to print and distribute your work. No other publisher may do so legally. Also, since you are selling your rights to a single publisher, you are prohibited from selling those same rights to another publisher. This exclusivity is the normal case, but some contracts may specify nonexclusive rights.

There are three aspects to rights: media, term, and territory.

  • Media means the form of publication, for example hardcover, paperback, e-book, audiobook, podcast, serialized, etc. The contract should specify the payment type and amount for each of the different media types cited in the contract. You retain the rights to any types not cited.
  • Term refers to the time period for which you’re granting rights to the publisher, usually expressed in years after the date of the contract. After that time, the specified rights revert to you, and you may then sell them to someone else if you wish.
  • Territory is the geographic region in which the publisher may exercise these rights.

There are two categories of rights:

  • Primary Rights, or just Rights. When the publishing company buys your rights, they have certain media immediately in mind that they intend to exercise. Maybe they want to publish your work in hardcover now, and paperback later. These uses of your work are the subject of the primary rights.
  • Subsidiary (or Secondary) Rights. The publisher has no immediate intent to exercise subsidiary rights, but would like to buy them from you now to allow later use. These often include movie and TV rights, merchandizing rights, dramatic and performance rights.

You’ll encounter some other terminology with respect to story rights. These definitions assume you’ve sold the specified right to a publisher.

  • First Rights: The publisher can publish your story for the first time anywhere and in any format
  • Second (Reprint) Rights: The publisher can publish your story following a first publication elsewhere.
  • One-Time Rights: The publisher can publish your work once.
  • First Serial Rights: The publisher can publish your story for the first time, and may do so all at once or a piece at a time in a periodical publication.
  • Second Serial Rights: After initial publication, the publisher can publish excerpts of your story in several magazines or newspapers.

If you’re offered a publishing contract, read the Rights section with care. Look up unfamiliar legal verbiage or ask someone with contracting expertise. You can negotiate with publishers and get them to change the contract before you sign; contracts are mutual agreements between two parties.

Here, here, and here, are some very good websites with more information about story rights.

I know what you’re wondering at this point, and the answer is no. After this exploration of story rights, there will not be a companion blog post on the subject of story lefts, written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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