KISS: Your Story's Theme

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Paul Whybrow

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Jun 20, 2015
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Cornwall, UK
I came across a quote by American figurative painter Alex Katz which set me wondering about the theme of my WIP.

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I'm currently three-quarters of the way through writing my fifth Cornish Detective novel, and it's always at this point that I contemplate whether what I intended the underlying message, the big idea of my story, to be has actually been expressed. Also, does the story arc of my protagonist continue in a convincing way, staying true to his character established in previous novels?

A writer doesn't have to be preachy to create a story that communicates something worth knowing about the human condition. As Julian Barnes commented: "Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you, life where things aren't."

I like to think that once somebody has read one of my Cornish Detective novels, they might start thinking in a slightly different way about a contentious subject, such as illegal immigration and slavery. This was one component of Book 1, with the antagonist, a criminal who was part of a worldwide network of human traffickers, treating people as goods—like the drugs and weapons he also smuggled.

The KISS principle of Keep It Simple, Stupid should apply to the underlying theme of a story, with your skill as a writer providing the artifice that enchants a reader into losing themselves in your words. But, it still has to ring true. As 20th-century best-selling novelist Margaret Culkin Banning advised: "Fiction is not a dream. Nor is it guess work. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work will not stand up."

I've given up on reading many a crime novel that was riddled with inaccuracies, depressed not just at the author's laziness, but also at the slapdash inefficiency of whoever edited the manuscript at the publishers. At least these travesties motivate me into getting the facts right—while avoiding an information dump. I look upon such details as the interesting smells that make a dog pause on its walkies—there to be briefly savoured—but not completely halting the journey.

With my WIP, The Dead Need Nobody, the plot involves theft, forgery, artistic creativity, prostitution, bereavement, falling in love and murder, but the simple theme is that relationships are more important than money or possessions.

What are the themes of your work in progress?

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