What’s Your Theme?
Saying the word theme
to a writer is a little like jumping out of a closet and yelling Boo! to a three-year-old. Either instance invokes
a flight response. When the word theme comes up, how many of us envision a fourth grade teacher glaring down through rhinestone-encrusted
glasses and demanding an assignment? How many of us think of topics like Why do you like Spring? or What do you
want for Christmas? and the resulting 300-word dissertations scrawled in paper blue books?
Well, I’m happy to tell
you those dreaded elementary school themes are not the type we’re discussing here. I’m talking about themes in
fiction, and if you want a story or novel (and yes, even poetry) to have meaning and a stick-with-the-reader quality, you
best be getting yourself a theme.
Oh, but wait, before you run
off in search of this literary Grail, we should have a chat.
We all know stories have characters,
settings, plots, scenes, conflicts, climaxes, resolutions, but did you realize the really good ones also have themes? In fiction,
a theme is a statement; it’s what the story is about. Not the concrete stuff I listed at the start of this paragraph,
but rather an abstract idea or ideas incorporated into the story. Author Rachel Simon sees it like this: “Theme is what
the story is saying—definitively or speculatively—about humanity and the laws of the universe.”
An idea for a story comes easily
to most of us. Something in our environment sparks an image or even a sentence that sends us on a journey to create characters
and situations—to form a story. In short, idea is more synonymous with
content. Theme, on the other hand, is an abstraction subtly revealed by the content.
See, aren’t you glad you
stuck around? No, don’t go yet … there’s more. The curious paradox to putting theme in your fiction is it
works better if it’s a natural process.
I hear you asking, “A natural
process? What the heck does that mean?”
According to Peter Selgin, theme
needs to develop naturally out of the work. Forcing it from word one runs the risk of heavy-handedness. Still, it is possible
to develop theme first, story second, and many authors of great literature have done just that (and, yes, they’ve been
called heavy-handed and preachy despite lofty literary praise), but we’ll explore that topic in another essay. For now,
suffice to say you can have too much theme when it “oversteps its bounds and moves from general and abstract …
to pointed and prescriptive … when it mutates into a message.” (Selgin) The minimal extreme of this overstepping
is labeled premise, and the most weighty extreme, propaganda. At either end of the scale, the reader is forced
to sit down and take his medicine along with his entertainment. Just remember, you want your themes to be inferred with grace,
not clobber readers over the head. (If you’d like to learn more about these darker dimensions of theme, you’ll
have to read Selgin’s book on writing, look them up on the Internet, or wait for a sequel to this essay!)
Although it’s possible
that a theme will form itself, whole and hearty, as we write, usually it needs to be teased and encouraged during the revision
process. Because we often can’t identify theme until we have the picture formed by a full story, we nurture a theme
as we edit. Ideally, theme’s subtle clues worm themselves into our consciousness (whether writer or reader), until we
see the story for its greater importance—what the characters teach us by their actions, fortunes, and misfortunes. After
all, characters are what any story is really about. They’re what the reader sits down to experience—other lives
through the narrator’s words—and it’s logical that those characters should impart something greater to the
reader and connect on an intimate level. (Think: theme.) How else can they evoke emotion?
It’s not always easy to
discover the themes in our own work. Selgin refers to it as “theme stalking.” Sometimes the best way to conduct
a hunt is what I’d call lefthandedly. In other words, you seek the theme by not looking for it directly. Maybe
you have that eureka! moment when you’re in the shower or walking the dog or sitting on the toilet. Maybe you
read a certain sentence and it sparks a connection to another event in the story. The revelation of theme can come at any
moment, but first you must be conscious of the need for it—the need for glue to hold your story together and give it
purpose. And then, when you find it, it’s likely to be quite a goose-bump-raising, heart-palpitating, emotional epiphany.
Selgin suggests, when you’ve
stalked a theme out of hiding, that you label your trophy with one word, if possible, or a single short sentence. This theme
summary becomes your anthem as you edit, and you will find yourself weaving its thread throughout the story (if it isn’t
already there) through adjustments to dialogue, actions, reactions, and even setting.
In an 1842 essay about Nathaniel
Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, Edgar Allan Poe wrote, “Without a certain continuity of effort—without
a certain duration or repetition of purpose—the soul is never deeply moved.” In 21st-century speak,
that means without continuity of theme in a story, the reader is left unmoved. And that continuity must be present in all
aspects of the story: characters, plot, point of view, even the choice of words. Selgin explains, “The fancy term for
this is organic unity: the organization of the story’s elements—plot, characters, setting, conflict—around
a single theme, such that they enhance, interact with, and inform the theme.”
Although not mentioned in the
above quotes, even a title should reflect a story’s purpose. Take that advice as a warning: Don’t get too vested
in an initial working title. That short burst at the top of the page, that thing every reader sees first, should be tied to
theme as well, and first attempts are rarely on the money. Those which come after your expedition into the wilds of theme
are much more likely to reflect it.
Both great and even good works
of fiction all possess the quality of theme—some binding thread or threads (a story can have multiple themes or themes
can morph from one to another in the course of a story) that draw all the parts together to create an effect. Think of it
as the story’s center—the underlying truth or truths that make a connection with the reader.
The good news is: Themes in literature
can often be categorized under broad headings, and some of the most commonly used are considered universal, transcending race,
gender, creed, and sexual preference. A few are: death and grief, the meaning of freedom, guilt, friendship, love, individuality,
innocence, peace, choices, family, etc. These are broad headings, of course, but remember what Selgin advises about seeking
a one-word representation of theme. It doesn’t need to completely explain the story, merely summarize its deeper meaning,
and remember, theme is inseparable from plot and structure—all three must harmonize.
So, now that you know what a
theme is in fiction, how do you know if a story’s got one? First, look at the title. If an author’s done her job,
the title will reflect the theme. (Consider how the title The Great Gatsby ties into Fitzgerald’s theme surrounding
the lifestyle of the wealthy in post-WWI New York.) Next, look for recurring symbols and patterns, such as a repeated line of dialogue and references to an event or
object. Hunt for allusions (indirect references or suggestions) in the story, and look for greater meaning behind the details.
Theme is about emotion—connecting
the author’s feelings to the reader’s. Stories with well-developed themes are always more powerful than those
without. In fact, when I read stories I wrote years ago, it’s shockingly obvious to me that their faulty element, the
thing that crumbles them like overdone cookies, is lack of a binding theme. They’re hollow stories without the depth
of character and purpose that only theme can bring.
So, to mix my allusions and metaphors
and what-have-yous: Go forth grasshopper, take your first step into a larger world, put on your thinking cap, and seek what
your stories have been missing!
Theme” from http://www.learner.org/interactives/literature/read/theme1.html
Selgin, Peter; By Cunning
& Craft, Writer’s Digest Books
Simon, Rachel; “The Writer’s
Writing Guide: Theme”, www.rachelsimon.com/wg_theme.html
“Theme (literature)” www.wikipedia.org