Theme: The Unintended Parable

I want to share a story about one of my failures as a writer.

I intended, once, to write a short story about a woman working in an organ farm. A place where brainless clone bodies are grown in vats, so that their organs can be harvested to save the lives of people waiting for transplants. One of the clone bodies starts kicking the side of the vat, and the woman freaks out. It turns out that it’s just a loose wire–easily fixed–and the body goes on to save dozens of lives.

I thought it was a good, creepy image that I could turn into an unsettling little story. Then I actually tried to write it.

I realized after the first draft that the message of the story was very clear: it’s wrong to grow clone bodies in vats, even if it saves lives. It doesn’t matter why you do it, it’s terrible and awful and disgusting. There’s only one problem. I don’t think that. I honestly believe that cloning is going to lead to enormous advances in medical science. I’ve known people who needed transplant organs and couldn’t get them. They died, horribly.

I tried writing a second draft, changing some details. I added a scientist who comes in and gives a speech about how the clones could save lives. I added a coda where a little girl gets a new kidney and gets to see her tenth birthday.

The story, with the clone kicking the side of the tank, was still awful and nasty. The message was still clear.

A third draft didn’t help at all. The clone kicked the tank. Rhythmically. Mechanically. Like a robot. I couldn’t shake the fact that this little gesture, this meaningless twitch, made the clone human. Made its existence an atrocity.

Okay, why am I dwelling on a story I eventually decided not to even finish? Because there’s a point here about theme.

Theme, what your story is “about”, may be the hardest part of writing. If you try to force it, you often come across as didactic or preachy. The usual advice is that you shouldn’t worry about it. Write the story you want to write, and theme will take care of itself. This is good advice ninety-nine times out of a hundred, and it’s how I usually operate.

At least… I did until I tried to write this story. Now I sit up nights worrying about theme all the time. Did any of my earlier books spread a message I personally disagree with? I’m not a huge fan of gun violence in real life, but I kind of fetishized Laura Caxton’s pistols, and the rocket launcher in Monster Island. By writing all those books about the end of the world, did I inspire people to think there is no future, that we don’t have to worry about climate change?

The unintended parable is one of the great risks a writer runs when they choose not to think about theme at all. I’m not saying you should write a book with the intention of sending a message–as well all know, that’s what Western Union is for. But maybe spare a thought, once you’ve finished your outlining, for what your story says. What it means.

You might save yourself a lot of regret later.