On Theme

Continuing my series of interviews with Daiva (basically, picking her brain), I bring to you another post on Daiva's Insights into Developmental Editing. This time, it’s on Theme.

Daiva has a knack of getting to the heart of a story. She’s done this multiple times with my stories and Rebecca’s. Me and Becca, we’re always gobsmacked, like, how does she do this? I mean, most of the time, we don’t even know what our themes are. But as soon as she points it out, or asks some pointed questions, we go…Oh, so that’s what this story’s really about. Not what’s happening on page, but what’s unsaid and unspoken between the lines---Subtext, which is related to Theme, but first, let’s start with Theme.


Me: So, how do you manage to get to the heart of other people's stories? I see you doing this to my stories and Becca’s all the time. I mean...how??

Daiva: Well, I have about 20 years of reading experience and I think my brain has figured out the main set of stories. Usually some social issues that writers like to address. Even if it's fantasy, the main concerns remain the same. I’m also interested in real word problems

Me: Hey, I've been reading more than twice as long and still haven't a clue. So, basically, you draw parallels between real world stuff and stories.

D: Exactly.

Me: Are you telling me that you analyse every story you read? Consciously?

D: I analyze everything. I read everything and let my brain pick what it needs to understand. It’s like learning. Our brains have been described as having open slots to analyze information; while one question could be analyzed faster, another slower.

Me: Wait, you mean simultaneously? Our brains are multi-tasking, learning and understanding different things at the same time?

D: Exactly. This is why it's good to start by looking at difficult questions in math exam, and go do the easy ones, and then when you go back to the difficult ones, your brain had taken time to think about them. I sometimes don't even put in extra effort. I give time for the brain.

Me: Ah, get ourselves out of the way and let it do its thing. Not try too hard. Where were you when I failed calculus? Probably no more than a glint in your papa’s eye. Never mind. Will you come back as my home tutor next lifetime?

D: Will try.

Me: Good. But all this is too nebulous. How does that help you get to the heart of a story?

D: My brain has a large library of patterns and when I read a new story it finds some examples that start popping into my head.

Me: Oh, cool! Like Sherlock's Mind Palace?

D: I think it works the same way. I have the book Think like Sherlock, found a lot similarities in how I think.

Me: Isn't Martin Freeman cute as Dr Watson?

D: I love him, but Moriarty is more my taste.

Me: Moving on…Ok, so you see patterns and you bring them to the surface?

D: Yes, everything’s analyzed. What binds those examples and patterns, that's the theme.

Me: For me, theme = heart of the story, like what the story is really about, the whole point of the story. It’s often there as subtext, unbeknownst to the writer.

D: Yes. It’s a topic your subconscious wants to scream about, but isn't sure if the idea would be accepted.

Me: Or acceptable. Yes, the theme is in the subtext, placed there by our subconscious. And if we try to consciously put it there, it can be very unwieldy, coming across as cringe-worthy or preachy.

D: Yes, I read this great psychology book named "The Theater of the Mind" You would be surprised how our mind works hard to hide some things from ourselves

Me: Ah yes, so it's about revealing the unconscious, about self-awareness. That quote by Jung - “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

D: Oh yes, it’s very true. Writing is psychoanalysis.

Me: It's therapeutic for many, but to write with self-awareness, that’s rare. Perhaps that’s why authors tend to sound repetitive after a while. Then again, many readers enjoy the comfort of recurring themes and tropes.

D: We search for a way to deal with things that can't be resolved.

Me: True, everyone's subconsciously searching for a way to heal all their traumas.

D: Exactly.

Me: Including generational trauma that we are not consciously aware of.

D: Yes.

Me: So the themes give us clues. So interesting. Wait, are you psychoanalyzing us as you dev ed our stories???

D: I’m usually too drawn into the story. I don't analyze people. I accept everyone. Because I know all my skeletons.

Me: OK, but I feel like you could give my therapist a run for her money. Finally, how does it tie in with developmental editing in a practical sense? Do you get the writer to play it up/underline/highlight it?

D: Well, each theme has its own expectations for the reader. When you see the pattern and know those expectations, you suggest the missing scenes to meet them, highlighting points that might be interesting for the reader.

Me: Ah, yes. I notice you asking for very specific scenes to add to my stories. Now I understand. Thanks, D! Another very illuminating interview.


Aisling Wilder

Hmmmm. Why does it have to be shorter? I’ve a couple of 5k chapters in book one, and so far one 4K in book 2. I mean, a chapter is as long (or short) as it needs to be…right?

Cassia Hall

Yes, in the first draft, chapter lengths are more organic. But in later drafts, we start to look at the book from the reader's POV. Shorter chapters are meant to create a better reader experience. Understanding reader psychology becomes important at this later stage. If we're writing for ourselves (not intending to publish), then chapter length is not an issue at all.

Madeleine Miles

Another thing to consider though, is genre. Some genres allow longer chapters and have more leeway with chapter length.

Cassia Hall

Oh, absolutely. Even within the umbrella of Fantasy, each subgenre is different when it comes to reader expectations. YA tends towards shorter chaps while literary tends towards longer ones. There's no hard and fast rule, but I find it useful to do a chap by chap word count to see where I'm way over 3K. Then it's really easy for me to find places to split. Might not work for everyone but sure works for me.

Aisling Wilder

I often think whilst writing that some of mine are too short (mine are generally 3k, except at the beginning some are 1.6-2k) But they’re almost all cliffhangers and I’ve not had a complaint yet (on the contrary, I’ve had groans about not being able to put it down due to that, lol) so I suppose it’s okay. I’m an instinctive writer, and the chapters tell me when they end…if that makes sense.

Cassia Hall

Yes, totally. There's no hard and fast rule for anything. Cliffhangers are great as chapter ends as they pull the reader forward to the next chapter. Literary fantasy tends towards longer chaps too. Most of mine are between 3-4K (after splitting) and that seems to work for me. YA tends towards shorter chaps (perhaps because younger readers have shorter attention spans? not sure) If something's working, then of course there's no need to fix.

JC Rosewater

Ummm... When I write epic fantasy, my chapters naturally end up being around 4K to 5K. When I started writing Herald of Dynoces, which is a dark fantasy more heavily leaning into romance, I noticed my chapters naturally ended up being much shorter, around 2K. I would love to make my chapters shorter in my epic fantasy series, but I'm not sure it's possible.


Yes, there's definitely genre differences (YA tends towards shorter chaps and literary towards longer). Aisling mentioned above how her chapters end on cliffhangers (which is a great device so you would always keep that at the end of a chapter). But generally, readers do tend to prefer shorter chapters. Whether the writer gives it to them or not is of course down to each individual writer. I'm not trying to impose anything on anyone, just thinking aloud.