Today’s post was going to be about pacing and structure, but I’m going to shelve that topic for a while. Instead I want to talk about themes, and how to use them to your best advantage.
Last summer Mark Teppo and I spent a lot of time reading books. He was looking for some to buy, and I was looking for one to write. There was a natural crossover between the two goals, and part of the exercise was “cracking the code” that made popular books really stand out. And while I’m not going to claim perfect success, I did apply what we/I learned to Homefront.
Good books succeed because they make you think and feel. The characters need to resonate with the reader, but so do their plots and scenes. The words on the page need to suggest not only what’s going on, but everything that’s taken place to bring the events in question to pass.
I’m not talking about backstory here. That’s something you can deliver while your characters talk, or better yet, when they act. I’m talking about the environment you craft to hold that action, the stage you build so they (the characters) can do their thing. It’s not about naming all the parts of the spaceship, it’s about how cold the air is in an unused corridor, and the feeling that something’s not quite right. It’s the feeling that someone’s looking over your shoulder while you’re fixing the hyperdrive; you want to turn and look, but you can’t afford the distraction.
It would be very easy to start a discussion about pacing and structure here, but while important, those elements are largely defined by the story you’re trying to tell. And that’s a theme, a promise you make to the readers about what they’re about to read.
To help illustrate my point, here’s the tagline for Homefront:
We sent our children to the stars, but what came back may no longer be human.
That one line sums up the central theme of the book, “what does it mean to be human?” You know right away that I’m writing science fiction, that it’s in the future, and “something” has happened to change the status quo. By the time they finish the book, I need to have answered that question for the reader. I need to show you what being human is all about, so you can make up your mind as to whether “our children” qualify.
There are a lot of places in this story that should make you smile, and more than a few that might make you laugh. But that wasn’t my primary goal in writing it. A pie in the face can get a laugh, but it takes a master actor to make you cry about it instead. And if Homefront is a book about what it means to be human, then it follows that it’s a book about loss, and hope.
That’s what we humans do as we go through life. We deal with adversity and loss, and hope for a future that contains neither. A book about “real” people must address these themes, and one whose central characters are soldiers is almost guaranteed to have some casualties along the way. But to make you care, to bring you along page after page until the end, I also need to give you the hope as well.
Homefront ends well, but not for everyone. When the “new status quo” is reached, our heroes have gone through some fairly traumatic things, and are for the most part stronger for it. But I’ll promise you now that you’re going to be upset with me at least once before you finish reading.
In fact, I’m counting on it.
I want you to feel my story as a part of your own life. I want you to laugh and cry and wipe whipped cream off your face. I want you to grab a pie of your own and throw it as hard as you can, and afterward embrace your now sticky friends with all your might. My characters need to live in your heads forever, or at least long enough for you to tell the people in your life that you read something that made you think of them.
I also want you to buy my book, so here’s a picture of my cat so you’ll think well of me in the fall.
Pay no attention to the man with the cream pie in his hand….