Guest Post: 4 Tips on Using Theme in Science-Fiction

The Spirit Room

For the occasional guest-post that blinks up on my blog like a distant supernova, today I’ll introduce you to our fellow writer Michael Cairns. As part of his book-launch blog tour, Michael is cruising the interwebs talking about all things writing, sci-fi/fantasy and the indie experience. His is simple and sound advice that doesn’t limit itself to this genre alone (as Michael doesn’t either), and it’s a welcome reminder for all of us.

Welcome, Michael!

*spotlight on*

 

Michael CairnsMichael Cairns is a writer, musician, father and school teacher. When he’s not writing, he can be found behind his drum kit, tucking into his chocolate stash or trying, and usually failing, to outwit his young daughter. His latest novel, The Spirit Room (book one in the fantasy Assembly Trilogy) hit the shelves on August 1st, and is ready to conquer save the world.
— @cairnswrites

 

The most powerful science fiction, be it in books, movies, or comics, not only takes us away, but also invites us to take a closer look at the world around us. As writers, this is a most powerful tool to have at our disposal, and one that should never be undervalued, or ignored.

Sci-fi can be an escape, a dive into another reality, but from Star Trek to Snow Crash, it can also explore the parts of ourselves and our culture that we often choose, or try, to ignore. What greater gift can an author be given than the freedom to pick apart these themes and the things that make us human through the metaphor of science-fiction, without ever having to name names, or criticize?

A few years back, my brother introduced me to a set of books called the Wildcards series, edited by George RR Martin, and written by some of the great sci-fi and fantasy authors of the seventies and eighties. They present an alternative view on how super powers came about, and feature a host of rich and diverse characters.

Aside from the spot-on characterisation, intriguing plots and wonderful concept, I particularly love these books because they so effortlessly weave the fabulous and fantastical into the real world. They make, through dint of only a little bending of science, the future very much part of the present. By viewing some of the big events and themes of the twentieth century through the prism of sci-fi, the writers provoke a profound evaluation of the real world by the reader.

So how can we, as writers, introduce themes into our work as effectively as books such as the Wildcard series?

1. Focus on your characters

Every theme, every subtext will come from the tension between your characters, and whatever it is that causes them dis-ease. Once you know your characters, you will understand their values, and this will lead you to the things that they must fight against, their internal struggle that can parallel the world around us.

For example, if your protagonist struggles internally with a lack of self-esteem, and feels trapped by it, can this be used to explore the wider issues of freedom lacking in certain parts of the world, or maybe a look at the power the media has in creating our body image?

2. Don’t cram too much in

One strong message, artfully explored, can carry much more weight than a novel that tries to solve every problem the world might ever face. If your dystopian sci-fi novel is feeling like a diatribe about fascism, but this isn’t something you can get passionate about, then check whether it is adding to the story. If so, then by all means keep it there.

Pick your battles, decide what is most important to you, and develop that.

3. Be Subtle

As a musician, I often emerge from the studio battered and bruised after a week spent wrestling with tracks that I have no objectivity about anymore. I listen back a while later, and realize that the cowbell is way too loud. Now, you can’t have too much cowbell, but often I’ve become so obsessed with the listener knowing the cowbell was there, that I’ve cranked it in the mix until that’s all you can hear. If I put it at the right volume, it will compliment the track, adding to the pleasure of the listener, without ever drawing attention away from the song.

Writing is much the same. Keep the theme turned down, just enough to get the reader’s mind working, without beating them over the head with it.

4. Don’t settle on your theme until it’s finished

If you are focused on the intricacies of your theme too early on, you can easily tie yourself in knots, often to the detriment of a good story. The things you care about will find their way in to your writing. Allow yourself to write from the unconscious, and your core messages will reveal themselves. The things you are really trying to say will bubble to the surface once you read back through your work. It may take until the second or third pass before they become clear. You can then use the edit to pick them out and give them the right degree of emphasis.

 

I write sci-fi because I can openly discuss, moan about, and offer solutions to, all of the things that bug me and keep me awake at night, without actually offending anyone, or receiving (too many) death threats.

Also, I can write about spaceships, and that’s just plain cool.

How about you?

Do you write for the subtext, or just the fun of escape?

Are you aware of your theme before you begin, or do you find it as you go?

7 Replies to “Guest Post: 4 Tips on Using Theme in Science-Fiction”

  1. Hi Peter
    Thanks for your comment. It’s made me think deeper about that point.
    I think perhaps I should have called it ‘be subtle, but make sure you can actually hear the cowbell.’
    I must confess I always struggled in English lit at school, being told that all these writers (whose work I didn’t particularly enjoy in the first place) had deliberately put all these thematic ideas and signposts into their novels. Whilst I’m still not convinced by some of the things I was taught, I have considerably more time for them. Having said that, if the theme is too subtle to spot, one does have to wonder what the point is.
    I admire anyone who can begin a novel with a theme, and still create compelling characters that don’t act in ways that contradict their natures in order to further the theme, or come across as cyphers made to put forward a particular idea or viewpoint. I’m intrigued to try one of your books, any one you’d suggest I start with? (Also, yay for Winnie the pooh and Dr Seuss, my daughter (and I) love them) 🙂
    Thanks again for your comment.
    Mike

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  2. Great guest post!

    I like science fiction because it allows us to examine our real world, but at a nice, safe distance. Escaping to faraway worlds is really fun, but what engages me is if I can identify with something in one way or another. I think that’s why so many readers love sci-fi.

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    1. Hi Jay
      Thanks for your comment, and kind words.
      I also agree, and I think as you say, Vero, being able to take things up a level, and explore outcomes and possibilities beyond what is possible in the normal world, makes it exciting, both to write and read.
      Also has to be said, the essential point of engagement for me is with the characters. It is an area that some science fiction can struggle with, so however exaggerated it may be, the people still have to resonate with me, in some way. That is the same for all stories I think, but in science fiction, it is almost more important because they sell all of the madness that surrounds them, and suck us into the story.
      cheers
      Mike

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      1. I like your emphasis on characters. All speculative fiction has been accused of being plot-driven only. Glad that the genre is starting to shake off that stereotype.

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