Theme and Irony Working Together

This week I read two articles that touch on two different concepts; however, both articles offer guidance on how to trim and focus my work in progress.

In the March issue of The Writer, author Terry Bain* discusses a step by step approach to finding the theme in your story. He mirrors my past (green writer) inclinations, when he says he thought his stories were finished and ready for publication, because they sounded good. For me, I always thought a story that flowed well and told a good tale was good enough. But, like Terry Bain, no one was falling over anyone else to publish my early works.

Terry Bain suggests, maybe those stories were missing a central focus, a theme. He says a writer can start a story with a theme in mind, but the writer may do better to let the story unfold and discover the theme later.

I’m a writer; I know about theme. But, it is a piece of the puzzle I tend to ignore. Typically, theme isn’t the spark that ignites my stories (except if I’m writing on Wednesdays), but it is one concept I should hold onto right now as I rework my novel.

Theme is not to be confused with plot, which moves a story forward. Terry Bain says, theme can “shine [a] flashlight on some aspect of life.” A theme doesn’t give the reader answers to world-wide problems, but it does provide another way for the reader to connect with the story.

He also says, “…knowing your theme…helps you make key decisions about what to keep and what not to keep,” and he offers some questions and suggestions to help an author clarify the theme and refine the story:

  • “Do the characters’ actions imply any universal truths?”
  • “What made you write this story in the first place?”
  • “Watch for repeated words or images. Or words and passages that strike you as particularly poignant.”
  • “Try to simplify your ideas into a few simple words.”

His last suggestion leads me straight into the next great article I read this week on The Sharp Angle.

Lydia Sharp wrote a post on Irony that complements much of what I read from Terry Bain. Lydia Sharp, however, suggests finding focus in your story via a one sentence pitch, a sentence that incorporates irony.

[I]rony,” she says, “is a writer’s best friend.” If a well-crafted sentence contains irony, the writer can reveal the complete story and hook the reader at the same time. And, that well-crafted sentence becomes crucial when the author approaches an agent.

“The irony shows the potential for an engaging story, no matter what the story is about. Without that clear potential, good luck finding someone to take an interest in your work, let alone represent it or publish it.”

I’m not ready to pitch my story. But, I want this rewrite to move along with a little more ease. Theme and Irony might be two key concepts to keep in my mind’s forefront.

If you haven’t read Terry Bain’s article, pick it up. And, if you haven’t seen Lydia Sharp’s post, click on over. I’d love to know your thoughts and hear about your experiences. Do you start your stories with a theme and a one-sentence pitch? Or do you write the story first, then flesh out the point?


* Bain, Terry. “Theme is What Unifies Your Story.” The Writer. Mar. 2010: 21-23, 55 . Print.


20 responses to “Theme and Irony Working Together

  1. If I am moved by creativity, I let the thoughts flow and lead my writing. Later, I go back and see what needs editing. I’ve not found creating a theme as an inspiration to writing, unless I’m writing essays or nonfiction.

  2. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  3. I tend to write with themeless abandon at first and then as the plot progresses, I think more of how to incorporate an ongoing theme to tie things together. I can’t say I’ve ever been fully successful though. Hopefully in the next story.

  4. Story first.

    As for irony … hmmm. I first read Lydia’s article when you tweeted a link, and now I’ve read it again. I’m not sure I get it. I mean, I know what irony is, but I’m not sure how to apply the concept to my writing. I could do it obviously, of course, but I don’t think that’s what she means. Guess I’ll have to think on this some more. I’m operating on half-brain these last few days. 🙂

  5. @Elizabeth and @kfbunny, I tend to do the same: start with the story. But there are several short stories I want to go back to now and see if I can flesh out a theme (since they need a good rewrite anyway).

    The only time I switch it up and start with a “theme” is on Wednesdays. I use the word of the day to inspire the story. I’m not sure if that’s an exact “theme,” but the definition of the word often transforms into a theme.

    @Lucy, thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

    @Linda, I’m keeping “irony” in mind as I finish this second draft of my WIP, but I doubt I’ll try writing a one-sentence pitch until the draft is done. That will definitely be a challenge, I’m sure!

  6. Story first. My writing group spent a fair amount of time discussing this when we had a member who was determined to write from the theme first. He was having a hard time getting the story to hang together, but theme was what drove him to write fiction.

    It would be interesting to know whether authors who write from theme first have a different process.

    • Terry Bain’s article discusses the cons of starting with theme:
      “To avoid overemphasizing your theme, don’t begin there. The writer who begins to write with a theme in mind almost invariably ends up with a didactic and forgettable tract.”

      But, did you see Lydia’s comment below? (Start with a theme [a clear focus] and an easier revision will follow.)

      I bolded “overemphasizing” above, wondering if that makes a difference, if trying to force the theme makes the characters revolt and the story come out choppy. Sure, the writer’s in charge, but I still wonder….

  7. Great post, Christi, and thanks for the link!

    Often times, my theme doesn’t clearly emerge until I’ve written a good deal of the story, perhaps even 100 pages into a novel-length project. Other times, I know the theme before I write the first sentence, and can incorporate it from the beginning. If you can do the latter, it does save you a bit of revising time later because when you write with a clear theme in mind, your story is focused from the start.

    Irony is crucial for a good pitch, not necessarily something you think about when writing the story. If you try to state your story (of any length) in a single sentence, and you don’t have any irony, that might be a hint that there is a bigger problem with the story as a whole. In my experience, that has always been the case.

    You want to focus on two points that are inherently opposite yet crucial to the plot. I’ve found that many writers who have trouble coming up with a good logline also have trouble with the following:

    a query letter
    a synopsis
    an “elevator pitch” (2-3 sentences)

    It’s all about being concise, saying as much as you can in as few words as possible. Irony within a single sentence will immediately catch someone’s attention, which is why it is so effective.

    Okay, I think I’ve rambled enough (sorry!).

    • Lydia, thank you for addressing me directly. I confess you’ve got me in a tizzy. I have just written a new query letter as well as a synopsis, so this topic is timely.

      I’ve spent hours this weekend reading opening hooks from novel blurbs as well as query letters that agents liked, but in most of them I’m having trouble seeing the irony. Maybe I have too narrow an understanding of the concept.

      Yet, I see definite irony in my novel, and at one time I referred to it in the opening hook of my query, but that line was shot down by my critique group.

      • Sorry for the tizzy! It’s sometimes difficult for me to get my point across without giving an example, and I was trying not to get too wordy.

        I’ll use the example I used in the comments of my post, the movie Pitch Black (one of my all-time faves):

        If I were to create a logline for this movie, I would choose two inherently opposite points that are both crucial to the plot.

        1) A group of people stranded on a hostile alien planet must rely on each other to escape.
        2) Their best chance at survival lies in the hands of a serial killer.

        There is irony in the pair: trusting your life to a known murderer; the opposite elements are life and death. The actual logline for this requires more time than I have to give right now (a single sentence yes, but a lot of work to get it right), but hopefully that cleared up the point.

        And, not surprisingly, the tagline for this movie is “Fight evil with evil.” (tagline is different from a logline, but similar in some ways) That’s kind of the point I was going for, so it looks like I was on the right track (I looked up the tagline after the fact): the only way to survive these horrible creatures is to have something available that’s worse than they are… the problem is, he might kill YOU too, not just the enemy. Therein lies the conflict. You can see the potential for the whole story within a single sentence.

        I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, but if you’d like a second opinion on your hook, you can email me: lydiasharp4sff (at) yahoo (dot) com

        • Okay, I went back to the Successful Queries section of Guide to Literary Agents. Many of them do not contain a single sentence pitch, but there is irony in the overall presentation.

          I did find one that had it in the very first sentence, though. From Dee Garretson’s query:

          “Everyone assumes Camp David must be one of the safest places on earth, but what would happen if a natural disaster caused the security systems to turn the retreat into a prison?”

          The opposites: retreat and prison, safety and disaster. This sentence immediately grabs attention and gets you to continue, even if it is a rhetorical question (which is usually advised against). She made it work by infusing irony. If she had stated it like this, “What if a natural disaster turned Camp David into a prison?”, it would not have been as effective. The irony is made blatant by her word choice, not simply implied.

          Hope that helps.

          • Yes, GLA is one of the sites I was checking and that’s what I noticed, that “Many of them do not contain a single sentence pitch.” So … now I’ll look for irony in the full pitch.

            Believe me, I’m not arguing with your point; I’d be thrilled to know this is truly the secret to a successful query. I’m off to revise.

    • Lydia,

      Thanks so much for your comment (not rambling at all). I’m still early in rewrites on my current WIP, which – based on your comment – could be why a theme hasn’t clearly emerged yet. With the next novel I write (and there will be a “next”) maybe I’ll try starting with theme and see how that process works.

      Thanks, also, for speaking more on irony as well — very helpful!

      • I think sometimes we write with a theme and don’t even realize it until we’re done. Then we just have to tweak it in the revisions to make sure it is clear to the reader.

        As a general rule (in my opinion), the theme should be stated somewhere in the first chapter, even if it is not blatant to the reader that they are reading the theme until they see the connection later.

        In my first novel, the main theme is that family is more important than money, since this relates to every part of the plot. One of the characters says this phrase outright in chapter one during a conversation. Until certain things are brought to light, and the theme is repeated, the reader just views it as a natural part of the dialogue, but it should give them an overall mood for what comes later.

        • Lydia, you are a wealth of information. Thanks!

          Based on your comments, and a few other articles in The Writer this morning, my theme is becoming more clear.

          What’s also becoming more clear is that I need to go back and drop in a different scene for the beginning of my novel.

          Hopefully going back will make for an easier course to the end.

    • I think yes, as overarching themes. But, I would want to flesh out theme even a little more. In thinking through my first novel (not my current WIP, but one a little more complete), I would say the theme revolves around family: discovering family when and where you least expect it.

  8. Never ever ever ever never start with theme. Start with anything else. Start with a microwave, a dish of water, a persistent buzzing noise. Finger weave a bedspread. Make a huge pot of chili with too much pepper. But don’t please don’t ever start with theme.

    Blessings and thanks.


    • Terry,

      Thanks so much for visiting and taking the time to comment.

      After I wrote this post, I approached my novel rewrite with-what I thought was-a clearer theme in mind. I was still filling out the story with so many new scenes, that trying to force them into my “clear as mud” theme didn’t work. I abandoned my grip on the theme and went back to letting the characters speak for themselves. I’ve rewritten past a painful chapter five.

      You and Lydia both have persuasive arguments about starting, and NOT starting with theme. I am figuring out how those strategies work for me as a writer.

      A question I have for you relates to writing prompts. Do you use them when creating a story? Do you think prompts, whether one word or one sentence, counts as approaching a story with a theme in mind?

      I ask, because my Wednesday’s Word exercise uses one word and the definition (typically) to spark a story. I’m wondering if those are times when I write from theme. Maybe starting a novel with a theme doesn’t work, but writing flash fiction from a theme does?

      • Prompts.

        Yes! I’m a big fan of prompts! I have my own prompts blog! Apparently I also really enjoy exclamation points!

        In any case, I created Write One Leaf ( because I am a fan of prompts. But I don’t use them to “spark a story.” Frankly, for me, it’s more like calisthenics. Sometimes I get too caught up in my head, and what I really should be doing moving my hands. If I get my hands moving, eventually my brain will follow, and I’m regularly reminded in the midst of this process that it’s a good idea to make sure my brain is three or four steps behind my hands.

        This is not to say that my brain is not actually engaged, just that the sticky, gummy, gooey thought processes have to be shed if I’m ever going to get to the good stuff, and the only way to do that is to let my body do the thinking.

        I know there are writers who use prompts to write whole stories, but I tend to shy away from that particular arena because I get mired in the “idea” of the “story” rather than in the story itself.

        Does this make sense?

        It’s entirely possible that I’ve made no sense at all, and as I’m not going to revise this, well, you’ll have to ask me to clarify, if clarity is a goal.

        Blessings and thanks again,

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