Theme and thematic layering transform stories from the inside out, simultaneously expanding and concentrating the narrative.
Since I’m reading Dean Koontz right now – and he’s a freaking grand master at thematic layering – I’ll use Night Chills to explain.
It’s an older novel of his, published in 1976, about a world-wide mind control conspiracy.
First, a definition is in order.
Thematic Layering = Infusing narrative elements with theme and subtext.
Night Chills explores the theme of control.
5 Thematic Layering Secrets of Bestselling Authors
1. Thematic Opening
Night Chills opens with two men emptying canisters of a chemical into a town’s (Black River’s) water source.
Not only does this create suspense, the chemical preconditions the townspeople to subliminal persuasion and mind control.
After contaminating the town water supply, each man receives a strange call (more suspense) that commands them to kill themselves. They do.
See how Koontz used theme to develop the opening? He could have used a million different openings but this one is perfect because it is rooted in theme, demonstrates mind control, cultivates suspense and reveals (part of) the setting.
2. Thematic Settings
Notice the setting here (in the opening) is the outdoors, which can symbolism freedom.
Like many novels, Night Chills hops between several settings. The main setting, though, is Black River, a small town nestled in woodlands.
The main character (Paul) and his two young kids are vacationing in Black Water. Vacationing, another symbol of freedom.
But the theme is control you might say. Yes, it is and freedom is the opposite of control, freedom contrasts control. In the context of freedom, control is magnified, highlighted, exposed.
Another major story setting is a wealthy estate. Wealth is interesting because it is both a symbol of freedom and a means of control (buying things, services, people).
There are other settings, too, that expose or contrast theme throughout the story.
3. Thematic Characters
Koontz is a master at developing compelling characters that you love or loathe.
The characters in Night Chills are no different.
The main antagonist is Ogden Salsbury, a scientist that cooked up the mind control drug. He wants control to dominate women. Two of his cohorts – Dawson and Klinger – also desire control, but for different reasons. One for money and one for power.
Note how Koontz explores different facets of control through each character.
The protagonist (and the rest of the *good* guys) explore thier own forms of control.
Which takes us to…
4. Thematic Scenes & Situations
Early in the novel, the antagonist (scientist) meets another bad guy in his power office.
The main thrust of the scene is for the scientist to convince the rich guy (a childhood friend) to fund the final leg of research into the mind control drug.
The scene starts with the rich guy in control of the conversation then shifts mid-scene to the scientist.
Another series of scenes dramatize the protagonist and his children trying to tame a squirrel – his son’s idea. His son wants to turn the squirrel into a pet that performs tricks on command.
While these are interesting, cute, funny scenes that make us care about the family, they are also all about control.
Every story element exposes and explores theme.
5. Thematic Dialouge
Words, too, matter in the conversation about thematic layering.
I mentioned the scenes about domesticating a squirrel (wildlife). Here is a section of dialouge in one of these scenes:
“We’ll never tame him.”
“Little by little”, Paul said. “He can’t be converted in one week. You’ve got to be patient.”
Wait, is this about taming a squirrel or the global mind control conspiracy?
Bonus: Thematic Symbols
I’ve already mentioned several symbols of control (or freedom) that show up in the story: woods, water, squirrels, vacations, power, wealth.
There are others, too.
- Cats symbolize freedom (hard to control, like herding cats)
- Cage (for the squrriel)
- Marriage (proposal – should I give up my freedom?)
- Small town (many people equate with a form of limitation and control)
- Decide on a theme
- Brainstorm different facets (sides/perspectives) of the theme
- Give each character a different perspective on the theme to explore
- Make lists of settings, scenes, situations and symbols that explore or contrast the theme
- Sprinkle the theme into dialouge (using subtext like a squrriel).