We can learn a lot regarding themes in creative writing by looking at Cloud Atlas.
Cloud Atlas is a fantastic book, brimming with a single theme: the human soul. Spanning centuries and lands, David Mitchell takes us on a journey where the impossible is reality, and that we live on, well after we think we are gone.
Yet what can Cloud Atlas teach us about writing? A lot! In my opening sentence to this blog post, I said that Cloud Atlas only had one theme. To be more specific, David Mitchell’s second book has one central theme that ties all the threads in the novel together. Mitchell toys with other themes and ideas, such as love, power, exploration, language, politics, geography, travel, and history. He does so with poise and grace that is admirable. Yet those are sub-themes that exist to serve a ‘greater’ theme, which is the human soul.
Often, writers can stuff their books with multiple themes, and not give a single one more weight. I know that I used to. There was so much I wanted to say in my writing, that I forgot to organise my thoughts. Ultimately, I forgot that it’s possible for literature to conjure up many thoughts, yet still have a singular overarching theme.
This isn’t just present in Cloud Atlas. Look at the novels of Jane Austen, which to me explore how humans connect and communicate with each other. Yet look closer. When you read her books, you’ll notice sub themes of class, femininity, family, lies, and creativity. These themes do not exist in isolation, either. What both Austen and Mitchell do is connect these sub-themes together, and use them in service of a greater, more universal theme.
It’s one thing to write about communication and family. But what’s even better is to write about how communication influences family dynamics (and vis-verse).
Jane Austen does that, and her writing is richer because of it. It’s crucial to ‘connect’ the elements of your story together. Why? Because it creates a marvellous reading experience, and it will satisfy your readers. That’s great!
Writers know that reading conjures up thoughts. The brain is a firecracker whilst reading. A single sentence can evoke the deepest thoughts and open up a labyrinth of emotion. As a writer, you want to achieve that sensation. Having readers react emotionally or intellectually with your work is a sign that you are in the right direction. However, that requires creativity.
In Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell is neither vague nor preachy. He does not go to great lengths to hide his theme, or bombard the readers with it. Instead, he is subtle and clever. By using sophisticated language, clever motifs, and experimenting with plot and character, he can make readers care about the theme.
Every author who opts to give their story a theme must make sure that the reader has a good reason to care. Otherwise, the experience of reading will be dull. It requires strong characterisation to avoid a stale reading experience. Let the ‘theme’ affect the characters and shape their lives. As the story progresses, you can have your characters becoming more aware of the ‘theme’ and changing what the ‘theme’ means.
That’s what is great about Cloud Atlas. The characters, although powerless in many regards, do not seem passive. Considering ‘the human soul’ is a huge, engrossing theme, that is an achievement.
In conclusion, the best ‘themes’ also impact the readers’ own lives. The human soul not only shapes the world of Cloud Atlas but also my own, and the many thousand readers. Literature transcends the printed ink and engages with humanity on a serious level.
Cloud Atlas does that. And your story can, too.