Theme is one of those slippery topics that can intimidate and paralyze a writer. It shimmers with a high-brow, literary aura that plunges many of us into a cold bath of self-doubt and uncertainty. Though definitions abound, it’s a difficult concept to nail down in practical terms. It’s like we have a vague sense that theme is an incredibly crucial element of a Good Story, and yet we can’t quite put our finger on why that is or how to bring that element into our own work.
Up-front disclaimer: I don’t know the answers to these questions. Yet. Today’s post is merely an exploration of the topic and the questions that I’ve been asking as part of my quest for understanding. I have much more to learn.
What intrigues me most about the idea of theme is that it seems to be a driving force for both writer and reader. In other words, our deep desire to express a particular theme is one the reasons we write, and our desire to consume and connect with a particular theme is one of he reasons we read.
Theme might be considered the soul of a story. It is less tangible than the premise or the plot. It is not something we construct through story structure or word craft, though both those tools help us illuminate and strengthen theme. Theme is not the flesh and bone of a story; it is the catalytic spark that brings that flesh and bone to life.
What is theme?
Let’s start our exploration with a few definitions.
From our old friend, Wikipedia:
“In contemporary literary studies, a theme is the central topic a text treats. Themes can be divided into two categories: a work’s thematic concept is what readers “think the work is about” and its thematic statement being ‘what the work says about the subject’.”
“To put it in its most simple terms, theme is what our story means ... Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on anything human beings experience in life.
Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.”
“The controlling idea is the takeaway message the writer wants the reader/viewer to discover from reading or watching his Story. It’s the reason many of us want to be writers in the first place. We have something to say about the way the world is and we want others to come to see it in the same way we do.”
See what I mean about theme being less about physical mechanics and more about being the “soul” or life-giving spark of your story? Theme is not what happens in your story, it’s the driving force behind what happens. It’s the deeper “why”of your story – its purpose and meaning.
Even a cursory exploration of themes in novels will yield a wide variety of examples that range from the very broad (man vs. nature, every dog has his day, love conquers all, good vs. evil) to more specific. In The Story Grid, Coyne defines the theme, or controlling idea, of two well-known novels:
- The Firm by John Grisham: Justice prevails when an everyman victim is more clever than the criminals.
- The Shining by Stephen King: Narcissistic self-abuse annihilates all forms of human love.
Steven Pressfield, author of The War of Art and a client of Shawn Coyne’s, provides these helpful examples of theme on his blog:
- The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney: Coerced manipulation of consciousness – we are all being brainwashed, and we don’t know it.
- Network by Paddy Chayefsky: Selling your soul on every level
- Jurassic World (multiple writers): Don’t mess with Mother Nature.
- When Harry Met Sally by Nora Ephron: It’s impossible for a man and a woman to be friends.
- The Imitation Game by Andrew Hodges: Sometimes it is the people whom no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.
In his book Writing the Breakout Novel, literary agent Donald Maass refers to theme as a story’s “animating spirit” and encourages writers to become “deeply impassioned about something you believe to be true.” He acknowledges that it takes a great deal of courage to stick our necks out in support of a strong theme:
“A breakout novelist needs courage, too: the courage to say something passionately. A breakout novelist believes that what she has to say is not just worth saying, but it is something that must be said. It is a truth that the world needs to hear, an insight without which we would find ourselves diminished.”
Doesn’t that get you a little fired up? It should. And this is why theme matters as much as it does.
Why does theme matter?
The short answer: It’s the element of your story that touches readers on the deepest level.
Your theme reflects the courage of your convictions. It is an expression of what you believe in, what you are willing to fight for. It is a representation of your core truth. This is powerful stuff, and that’s why readers respond to theme the way they do.
Maass observes that novels “convey society’s underlying values,” and as such they validate those values. It’s a novel’s theme that embodies those values and makes your readers feel a stirring of their own values and beliefs.
Brooks focuses on a theme’s ability to make a reader feel something, “Theme is what makes you think, makes you feel. It is what compels readers to invest themselves in your story. It is what will make them remember it and treasure it.” Think about your favorite stories, the ones that have stuck with you over the years. What is it about those stories that makes them so memorable? It probably isn’t the details of the plot, the setting, or the specific language the author used. It’s something deeper than that. It’s the heart of the story – the theme.
It’s like Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Theme is what makes the reader feel. It’s the thing they won’t forget.
Theme also matters to the writer.
How much better does it feel when you really believe in what you’re writing? How much more exciting and rewarding is the writing process when you have a strong sense of purpose? Theme provides you with inspiration and it helps you maintain your momentum. As Coyne points out, the expression of theme is one of the reasons why we write in the first place. We write because we have something to say.
But understanding your theme doesn’t only have inspirational benefits. It also has very tactical ones. In his excellent post, Help! I Can’t Find my Theme!, Pressfield explains how your theme tells you who your protagonist is, who your antagonist is, what your climax is, and can even give you your title. “Theme influences and determines everything in our story,” Pressfield explains. “Mood, setting, tone of voice, narrative device. Theme tells us what clothes to put on our leading lady, what furniture to put in our hero’s house, what type of gun our villain carries strapped to his ankle.”
The question of why we write, both collectively and individually, has always fascinated me. Though worrying about the why can get in the way of the actual writing, there is also power and insight to be gained by digging into your own motivations. When we take the time to articulate the beliefs that define us, we are better able to harness the energy and passion of those beliefs so that we can translate them into the kinds of stories that make a difference in reader’s lives.
How do you find your theme?
This, of course, is the elephant in the room. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet found an answer to the question. While Brooks is adamant that a writer must be proactive about defining and commanding a story’s theme, most of the insights I’ve read on the topic acknowledge that it can be very difficult to discover and articulate your theme. In fact, it seems that it’s often the case that a writer doesn’t know the theme of a story or novel until much of it has already been written. In The Story Grid, Coyne recommends patience:
“The creative energy and hard work necessary to bring these bits to life truthfully will eventually coalesce and an “aha, that’s what this is about!” moment will come. Perhaps not even to the writer, but to the reader.
One of the most difficult skills to develop as a writer is patience. And figuring out the controlling idea/theme requires it in abundance.”
Pressfield comes right out and says that we don’t pick our themes, our themes pick us,
“What do I mean by this? I mean a story—a novel, a play, a movie, a work of narrative nonfiction—is like a dream. Its source is our unconscious, our Muse. And just as in a dream, the totality arises organically and coheres naturally. The dream/story means something already. All we have to do as writers is figure it out.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Maass offers some practical theme-finding exercises in Writing the Breakout Novel. He suggests, for example, listing out a character’s inner motivations in a particular scene. He suggests that most such lists will begin with immediate physical and emotional needs before drilling down to secondary needs (such as information, support, comfort, curiosity, etc.), and then finally the “higher motivations” like truth, justice, hope, or love. Those items at the bottom of the list are clues to your theme.
Another exercise he recommends is to pretend that government agents have seized your work in progress and thrown you in prison. Just before you’re about to be executed, a warden gives you a typewriter and ten sheets of paper. What do you write? Now imagine that the same warden rips your ten pages to shreds, leaving you with only enough space to type up one paragraph. Again – what do you write? That’s your theme.
I’ve explored similar lines of questioning myself. In Five Questions to Ask When You Don’t Know What to Write, I suggest asking yourself what and who you love as well as what you want to say. This kind of brainstorming can get you really thinking. In Embrace Your Dark Side, I explain how you can use the things that make you angry to add fire and clarity to your stories.
Whether you discover your theme serendipitously in the process of writing your story, or define it up front doesn’t really matter. What matters is that once you know what it is, you bring it to bear on every element of your story.
When do you apply your theme?
Is there a “right” time to work your theme into your story? This is another question that doesn’t seem to have a universally accepted answer.
Despite his statement about themes picking the writer instead of the other way around, Pressfield stresses that the writer must know the theme because it is the foundation of the story. He urges writers to remember Chayefsky’s Rule of Theme:
As soon as I figure out what my play is about, I type it out in one line and Scotch tape it to the front of my typewriter. After that, nothing goes into the play that is not on-theme.
Pressfield and Coyne both acknowledge that sometimes it’s the editor who has to define the theme for the writer. They have apparently experienced this scenario several times over the course of their working relationship. In those instances, when Coyne identified the theme, Pressfield could then go back and ensure that the theme was a core and focused element in every scene.
Interestingly, identifying your theme up front and consciously writing to it in your first draft can sometimes have a detrimental affect on your story. If you focus too much on theme, you run the risk of becoming heavy-handed with your approach and coming off sounding like you’re delivering a preachy morality tale from atop your soapbox – never a recipe for success. To help mitigate this problem, Maass suggests “keeping the message out of the mouth of the author and instead conveying it through the actions of a novel’s characters.”
Brooks’ ideas about how theme can develop organically through character behavior corroborate Maass’ suggestion:
“… if you have complete control over the character arc in particular, theme can sometimes take care of itself. You don’t have to have an agenda to speak to the truth of life, you simply need to explore and illuminate through the experiences of your characters and the consequences of your choices.”
So, I guess the jury is still out about the best way to apply theme in your story. My instincts tell me that each author may need to find his or her own “best” method through trial and error, and that the method may evolve over time along with other craft skills.
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Theme – it’s a complex and sometimes contested part of the writing craft. How it’s defined, discovered, and implemented may vary greatly from writer to writer or even project to project. Every expert who writes on the topic agrees, however, that no matter how or when you discover and apply it, it’s an absolutely crucial element to story success. It’s the secret ingredient that gives your story universal appeal, staying power, and the ability to touch people’s hearts. And that, my friends, is really what this writing gig is all about, is it not?
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.