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Between Writer and Pen Sept 2009

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!





 “Analyzing Theme” from


Selgin, Peter; By Cunning & Craft, Writer’s Digest Books


Simon, Rachel; “The Writer’s Writing Guide: Theme”,


“Theme (literature)”