Finding a Theme (Or Letting the Theme Find You)


Sanjay Bahadur, author of The Sound of Water, guest blogs about finding a theme for a novel -- or letting the theme find you. A bit of background about the book, and about Sanjay's process, which included getting feedback via the internet! 

The Sound of Water The Sound of Water provides an account of an Indian mining disaster as seen from three perspectives: an old miner struggling to save himself and his coworkers hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth; the company and government officials charged with managing the rescue efforts; and the miners' families anxiously awaiting word of survival or death.

While writing the book, the internet proved to be an effective resource for Sanjay. Not only did it strengthen his research but it enabled him to connect with some discerning readers whose suggestions improved the readability of the book. He also received technical guidance from mining engineers promptly through emails, including diagrams or process descriptions. Sanjay writes: “Writing can be a lonely process but internet ensured that I never lacked support or advice.”


As a first time author, the question posed to me most often is: So how did you choose the theme of The Sound of Water? To be frank, I think themes of novels are like taxmen. You don’t find them – they find you.

You may think I am debunking the art of writing and the ability of a writer to craft a good story. Well, I’m not. When a raw theme presents itself to a writer, she (or he – to retain the old world charm) still has to hammer, carve and chisel all her lumps of thoughts to fit that theme and make it presentable.

Imagine if the following “theme” were to strike me: A confused adolescent boy of 17-20 -- perhaps also prone to hallucinating -- gets it into his head that his father had been murdered. He sees ghosts, rants and raves about injustice in this world, takes out his anger on his hapless girlfriend, freaks out his close friends and hatches a wacko plot to take revenge. The plot hinges on performance of a weird play named, say, “The Murder of Gonzago” performed by some traveling drama company! It all ends in plenty of dead bodies, some killed by mistake, some deliberately and some in utter despair.

I don’t know about you, friend -- but I would probably make a mess of it. Or Hong Kong would have produced a B Grade karate flick called “Fist of Blood” or something. But it made “ye olde bard”, Shakespeare create Hamlet. See my point? The skill and presentation always matters. A theme grows like a kernel in the fertile soil of the writer’s imagination. It is how much love, care and attention it gets that makes it a sapling and eventually a flowering tree. All it takes is the courage to plant it -- on paper. Like babies, all themes are potentially great.

If that doesn’t sound convincing, let’s try out an open experiment here. Let any aspiring writer put down a theme that has grabbed her or his mind. Let it be just 10 sentences – or a single line. Plant it here, in this public space just so you know you have sowed your kernel in front of witnesses. If you really want to write a book, it will grow. In all probability, you would be the proud owner of a finished manuscript within the next 2-3 years.

Are there any disbelievers out there?


Sanjay Bahadur has a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Mumbai and a MBA from the University of Birmingham, UK.  He joined the Indian Revenue Service in 1989. During 2000-04 he worked as a Director in the Indian Ministry of Coal, which gave him the opportunity to observe mining operations and lives of miners at close quarters.

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  1. An idea I got about a year ago was sleep-walking. It'd be an interesting subject to write about, and I've asked myself a few questions while pondering the idea...
    Let's say that when you sleep, your soul departs the body. The soul stays closer to normal sleepers than sleepwalkers, due to either a physical/spiritual imbalance. There's an urban legend about not waking up a sleepwalker, and I don't know why or how it started, but there is a reason for this in the story.
    When awakened, the soul automatically returns to the body. Since the soul wanders further in sleepwalkers' cases, it takes longer to return. Much longer.
    Sometimes, it's possible for the soul to be completely lost before the sleeper completely awakens. A soulless body = not good.
    Well. That's about it. I hope this seed grows, because it's one of the ideas I really like. :)

  2. I can immediately say that the premise is very interesting. I think you are conceiving a character whose soul briefly separates from his/her body. There are some interesting possibilities about what happens during that period - physically, emotionally, spiritually... It also leads to a thought about what guides a human being in absense of a soul? Is that guiding force "good" or "evil" -that would depend on your own views. Is the natural state of being "good" or "bad"? Those events / actions by your protagonist may lead to some dramatic points in the story. And maybe, in the end there is a twist in the tail when the body and soul reunite.
    If I were you, I would really pursue this idea and create a rollicking tale around it. Great potential. I feel you can have a manuscript ready in 6 - 10 months. At least you should know that one person would be disappointed if you dont.


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