Stick To Your Theme

archwayI’ve just written and recorded a new story for Richard Wood’s excellent Word Count Podcast. For those of you who haven’t yet come across it, you’ll be able to link to the most recent episode here.

It’s been running for a couple of years and I’ve written several stories for it. One of the things I like about it is that Richard sets a theme and, since I tend to be reactive in most things, I like the challenge of responding to something I might never have thought of. Anyone can send in a story, poem, song (although it’s mostly stories) and if it’s good enough it’ll be included. The intention is to support the short story form as well as authors by giving them another way to attract new readers. (The closing date isn’t until February 14th so you still have time to enter. You’ll find the details here.)

The reason I mention it now, though, is because of the process I went through with this story. Ever since last year’s Edinburgh ebook festival, when Dennis Hamley gave a great series on the supernatural and ghost stories, I’ve been meaning to write one. Part of Richard’s prompt is a photo taken by Matthew Munson (that’s it at the top), and it struck me immediately that it was exactly the right sort of setting. The trouble is I’m not a fan of ghost stories, nor am I a believer in the supernatural, so the idea of having some apparition wander down the dark street, however atmospheric the lighting, dressed in Elizabethan gear and vaguely wailing, didn’t attract me.

I won’t tell you what the story’s about in case you decide to listen to it, but the first half (maybe more) has nothing remotely ghostly about it. It’s only when the narrator walks under the arch that the supernatural (if that’s what it is), creeps in. But I only decided on the nature of that supernatural (so to speak), as I was reading a piece about the film Gravity in which Alfonso Cuarón, the director, said ‘Before the story, you start with the theme’. Their theme was ‘adversity’ so they started thinking about survival scenarios and, at first, there was no mention of a space setting.

So, going from his sublime (it’s a great film), to my ridiculous…

I’d already written the first half, I knew the narrator had to go through the arch and I knew the sort of experience I had in mind for him when he did. But I wasn’t sure how to make the ‘reality’ of it acceptable – to the reader, but mainly to me. I had no idea what to write. So I tried applying Cuarón’s technique, decided what the story’s theme (or perhaps main image), would be and gradually teased out how it might work. I then rewrote the first half and the second half was much easier. I think it works, although, of course, listeners might well – and probably will – disagree, but I think the important point to make is that, whatever genre you’re using, stick with a consistent theme so that, however far from ‘reality’ it may be, its internal coherence is consistent.

It just showed me yet again that, however much we’ve written before, we’re still always learning how to write.

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