Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

Thoughts on how a story states its theme

Today I read After the Golden Age by Carrie Vaughn. Although it was fun and an incredibly quick read, I’m not sure if I’ll review it here.

However, there was a passage in it that struck me and is making me ask questions about what fiction can do, or should do – or at least about what the kind of fiction I like can or should do.

First though, some background: After the Golden Age is about Celia West, the mundane daughter of Spark and Captain Olympus, the pre-eminent superheroes of Commerce City. All her life, she’s had to deal with the fact that her parents consider her a failure due to her lack of superpowers. After a very ill-advised bout of teenage rebellion, she’s grown up and tried to be as different from them as possible. Now she works as a forensic accountant, a profession so mundane it mortifies her father. Generational strife runs throughout AtGA, in fact, as various secrets come to light about the nature and origin of the superheroes and supervillains in Celia’s hometown.

And now, we get to that notable passage. Here, Celia is asking the District Attorney to give her access to some obscure but important public records:

“Couldn’t you just… let me into the records office? Give me a key and no one would ever have to know I’d been there.”

“That’s crazy. I can’t let you do that.”

“I didn’t say it was an easy favour.”

“You think being a hero gives you carte blanche? You think you can run all over town bending all the rules, like your parents and their pals?”

“I’m not anything like my parents.”

“I hate to break it to you, but we all turn into our parents.”

That pronouncement held a tone of finality that Celia didn’t much like.

Look at that last line of dialogue and savour it. That, right there, is what gave me pause. To me, this line is the heart of the book – it gets to the various ways both the protagonists and antagonists (knowingly or unknowingly) fulfill generational patterns.

This makes me wonder: is it a sign of strong writing for a book to have such an explicit statement of theme? Should all stories have a passage like this that wraps everything up in a nice package for extraction?

I remember being struck by a similarly all-encompassing bit of text in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina. In that scene, Seraphina, slightly drunk, reveals to her father that she’s in love, and that the person she loves is a symbol of everything that’s been thwarted in her life. It crystallizes the book’s theme of wanting something you can’t have – the humans can’t have peace with the dragons, and Seraphina’s been forbidden from finding peace and happiness as an individual.

God, I sound like a university student spelling it all out like this. What I wonder is this: it’s interesting when an author states their theme so overtly, but is it a good idea? Does it make things too easy or obvious?

I’m curious about what you, my readers, have to say about this. Can you think of books you’ve read that contain similar lines where the theme is right out there in the open?