Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Importance of Subject

Part of the author’s task is to pick the right subject. Actually, the author gets to create the right subject. Since all the good plots are predefined and the theme is probably whatever bee the author has in her bonnet, the creation of the subject is the author’s opportunity to stand out.

Look at the stories of Mary Poppins and Nanny McPhee. They both have the same plot. They both have the same theme. But they are very clearly different. The difference is in the subject. In Mary Poppins, the children are fairly good and the only real problem is their father works too hard. The nanny is attractive, “practically perfect in every way,” and gives the children medicine with a spoonful of sugar. In Nanny McPhee, the children are terrible and their father is grieving the loss of his wife. The nanny is ugly, gives the children what they deserve and no amount of sugar would make the medicine she gives them taste good.

The decisions an author makes about the subject determines what events can take place, or the events that take place can limit the subject the author can use, depending on how you want to look at it. The love story of two starship captains would be different than the love story of two high school sweethearts. It would also mean a difference in genre. One would be science fiction and the other might be teen fiction, even if they have the same plot and theme.

Stories are about how the subject changes over time. We like subjects with problems because they have a need to change. It is helpful to see the subject as a conglomeration of characters and other things because some characters may not need to change in a way that relates to the theme. These characters may exist to encourage others to change or as a narrator through whose eyes the reader sees the world.