By Amanda Marlowe (The Bellman)
What Is Theme?
There are about as many ways to describe what a theme is as there are themes. The moral of the story. The premise the story is trying to prove. The one sentence snapshot of the story. The greater truth that the author is trying to convey through the story. Most of these descriptions boil down to “What is the story really about?” Plot is what happens in the story. Theme is what the reader takes away from the story.
Generally a theme is presented as a statement. Take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, the classic story of those two star-crossed lovers that ends in tragedy because their families cannot stop feuding. While there are probably as many different descriptions of the theme as there are English teachers, the theme is generally presented as a sentence. Some commonly presented themes for Romeo and Juliet are:
- “Hate destroys love.”
- “A great love defies even death.”
- “Love conquers hatred.”
Background Photo: Romeo and Juliet (1968)
Views on Themes
When it comes to the theme of a story, writers tend to fall into two camps.
There is the “my theme will naturally happen without my needing to worry about it while I am writing” camp.
I tend not to know what the plot is or the story is or even the theme. Those things come later, for me.
Ultimately, your theme will find you. You don’t have to go looking for it.
A novel’s whole pattern is rarely apparent at the outset of writing, or even at the end; that is when the writer finds out what a novel is about, and the job becomes one of understanding and deepening or sharpening what is already written. That is finding the theme.
And then there is the “without a clear theme at the start, the story will be aimless” camp.
To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be that have tried it.
You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.
So, the very first thing you must have is a premise. And it must be a premise worded so that anyone can understand it as the author intended it to be understood. An unclear premise is as bad as no premise at all.
The author using a badly worded, false, or badly constructed premise finds himself filling space and time with pointless dialog—even action—and not getting anywhere near the proof of his premise. Why? Because he has no direction.
Which camp do you fall into? Do you think about the theme of your stories at all? Do you start with a theme, or discover it when you are finished?
But… but… The THEME!
Many writers worry that if they have a clear theme, their story will feel artificially moralistic. We’ve all read those stories where the theme batters us over the head until we put down the book, saying “Enough already!” and we don’t want to be those writers.
If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.
So are the choices here between wandering aimlessly through a forest hoping we make a clear path, or clear-cutting a path so wide that destroys the forest?
That’s a very simplistic view, the either/or view. The fun and interesting stuff comes about when you look at all the grey areas in between two simplistic views. Theme actually has another component to it—the reader has a say in what the story is about.
I get thousands of letters, and they give me a feeling of how each book is perceived. Often I think I have written about a certain theme, but by reading the letters or reviews, I realise that everybody sees the book differently.
If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.
Look at the variations on the theme of Romeo and Juliet. Most people agree love has a lot to do with the story. But what love accomplishes (or doesn’t accomplish) can depend very much on the reader. A young teenager can read it and think that the theme is “Love is worth sacrificing everything.” A jaded adult can read it and think “The impetuousness of young love leads to destruction.” A pacifist can read it and think “Hatred destroys everything, including love.” A fatalist can read it and think “Love cannot overcome fate.”
What’s It All About, When You Get Right Down To It?*
We’re currently in a messy spot with themes. Should you have a theme before you write, or not? Can you have a strong theme that isn’t an “in your face” thing? Does your theme even matter if the reader is going to find their own theme anyway?
The answer to those questions is… ask another question.
Earlier, I said that most themes are written as statements. They are presented as “the moral of the story.” I’d like to twist the idea of theme and pose it as a question.
Let’s start with one of the themes we presented for Romeo and Juliet. “Great love defies even death.” How can we make that theme into a question? Well, there is the obvious one: “Can a great love defy even death?”
I contend, however, that “Can a great love defy even death?” is not that interesting a question. Because there are only two answers to it: Yes, or No. If you are trying to have a meaningful conversation, you generally don’t get a lot of response from a yes or no question. “Did you have a good time at the party?” “Yes.” “Did you like school?” “No.” If you want dialog, you need to ask open-ended questions. “What was the party like?” “What did you do in school today?”
What happens to the idea of theme if we phrase it as an open-ended question? What if, instead of our original question, we ask, “How far would lovers go to be with each other?”
If we think of Romeo and Juliet as an exploration into the answer to this question, the story becomes a lot more interesting. What is Romeo willing to do to be with Juliet? What is Juliet willing to do to be with Romeo? Both are ready to defy their families. So let’s escalate that. Are they ready to defy the feud between their families? Defy the law? And defy even death to be together? Those two characters are willing to go all the way. If they were not, it would be a different story. Same question, but a different answer.
Asking an open-ended question about your story is a good way to circumvent all the theme angst, but still give yourself that theme dimension that makes a good story a great one. By asking an open-ended question, your writing becomes an exploration. You don’t need to know the answer ahead of time—you can find out the answer for your particular set of characters in their particular circumstances as you go along. But your story has the theme built into it. And with a good open-ended question, it can still have Melville’s mighty theme.
The question exploration approach to theme also allows your readers the room to draw their own conclusions. You don’t end up accidentally trying to prove your point with a sledgehammer when your goal is not to prove a point, but to push the boundaries of a messy question to its limits and see where it takes your characters.
So start your story by asking yourself a messy question.
- How far would someone go for revenge?
- What price would someone pay for their heart’s desire?
- How much would someone endure for their faith?
Then push your characters as far down their paths as they can go in your pursuit of an answer.
When you have your answer, you have your theme.
*”One minute I’m just another rabbit and happy about it, next minute whazaam, I’m thinking. That’s a major drawback if you’re looking for happiness as a rabbit, let me tell you. You want grass and sex, not thoughts like ‘What’s it all about, when you get right down to it?’” —Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures
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