Today I’m looking at an aspect of the craft which can elevate stories from mere sequences of events to something which moves readers on an emotional level: theme.
It’s only when the writer considers the theme of a story “does he achieve not just an alternative reality, or loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art—fiction as serious thought.”[iii]
This article looks at the definition of ‘theme’ before exploring ways for you to come up with or uncover your themes and lastly, how to weave them into your stories.
1. What’s a theme and why is it important?
As eluded to above, the theme of a story is what it’s about, what it means.[iv] It should not be confused with plot—the two are separate elements, yet linked. For example, if we look at the classic story of Romeo and Juliet, the plot is about two individuals from rival families falling in love and dying as a result of a series of tragic events. But that’s not what the story is about. The themes, in simple terms, look at love, fate, and family, amongst others.
The theme provides the platform for the writer to leave their mark, to put forward their views on a particular topic or idea. It’s the job of the writer to “dig out the fundamental meaning of events by organising the imitation of reality [the story] around some primary question or theme suggested by the character’s concern.”[v]
As we’ll see below, a theme doesn’t have to be based on morality. It can be a more general idea, a topic which reappears throughout a story.[vi]
2. Coming up with a theme
American novelist John Gardner (who had the interesting middle name ‘Champlin’) argued that theme is not imposed on a story, but rather evoked from within it. Initially it’s intuitive, but finally becomes an intellectual consideration on the part of the writer.[vii] While other writers agree with this approach, it’s not the only one to take when considering the theme. It can be engineered into your story, considered beforehand to give it focus, to help you make out your argument.[viii]
But a theme should not consume your story. It’s just one component. Writer and blogger Chuck Wendig describes it as “a drop of poison: subtle, unseen.”[ix] Don’t make it too subtle though, otherwise, it may bypass your readers.
Below you’ll find a few ways of coming up with themes, and we’ll start with some common examples.
2.1 Examples of common themes
When you seek out examples of themes you’ll invariably find lists of single-word suggestions. It’s important to remember that while it’s helpful to summarise themes in this way, they should not be limited to just that one word. Instead, think of it as an essay question you’d find in school or university. You’re asked to explore or criticise a concept, and in essence, you’re doing the same with your theme.
“Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on anything human beings experience in life.”[x]
It should be borne in mind that a theme is not a question, it’s the answer. The process of exploring the theme in your story is the journey your characters go on to come to realise this answer.
Here are a few examples:
- Alienation – the effects of it, how to fight it.
- Betrayal – how the pain feels, attitude changes to friends and loved ones.
- Coming of Age – the loss of childhood innocence, the shift from childhood to adulthood, or a significant step in personal growth.
- Courage – courage to face adversity, to deal with conflict, the development of it, or the loss of it.
- Discovery – discovering new places, revealing information, inner meaning, inner strength, treasures.
- Death – how to escape it, facing it, dealing with the effects of it.
- Fear – conquering it, coping with it, the crippling effects of it.
- Freedom – losing it, longing for it, striving to achieve it, fighting for it.
- Good Versus Evil – the struggle between the two opposing forces, the triumph of one over the other.
- Justice – the fight for it, injustices, seeking the truth.
- Loss – of life, innocence, possessions, freedoms.
- Love conquers all – love provides the motivation to overcome an obstacle.
- Religion – the effect religion has on individuals, how beliefs shape their lives, extremists such as cults, sin, the afterlife.
- Power – gaining it, handling it, losing it, fighting for it.
2.2 Helpful questions to ask yourself
There are two simple questions you can put to yourself to help evoke the theme of your story. You can ask yourself these questions at any stage of the writing process—beginning, middle, or end, and it’s always helpful to keep them before you to maintain focus.
- What is the meaning of things?
- What deep-rooted idea is being examined?
2.3 The secret snapshot approach
This technique is helpful for giving your story an emotional edge, an edge so sharp it cuts through to your theme and moves the reader. The theory is simple, the practice is a little trickier.
Master editor Sol Stein utilised this approach when teaching his writing students. He first asked them to think of a snapshot of a memory so private that if that snapshot was a tangible image they wouldn’t carry it in their wallet or purse in case anyone found it, family included.[xi]
“Some writers squirm through the process, shifting uncomfortably in their seats. That’s a good sign.”[xii]
As an exercise, write down what you see in your most secret snapshot. Be brutally honest. To help, I’ll give my own example. I have a vivid recollection of the day my mum and dad told me they were splitting up. I was about thirteen. I remember crying about not being able to go to football training anymore, which my dad took me to each day after school. Looking back, what I was really upset about was the fact that my life was never going to be the same again, that the image of the life I knew was being shattered before my eyes.
When you’ve come up with your example, ask yourself whether you’d carry your snapshot in your purse or wallet. If yes, think of another. You want to reach deep into your emotional memories and find the most personal. “The best fiction reveals the hidden things we usually don’t want to talk about.”[xiii]
You can also look to conjure the secret snapshots of other people, ones that you wouldn’t be allowed to see under any circumstance. The bravest writing someone can do is to explore the recesses in which the secret snapshots of their friends, enemies, and themselves are stored.[xiv]
3. Revealing your theme
To finish, we’ll take a quick look at how to reveal your theme in a story. I referred to Chuck Wendig above and how he says that a theme should be subtle. How do you achieve this subtlety?
Let’s take the theme of nakedness as an example. You could consider adding details to suggest nakedness, for instance, the chipping paint of a wall, characters who show a lot of skin, or the psychological nakedness of a character.[xv]
There are instances where it’s fine to be direct with showing your theme. For example, how Forrest Gump tells us that ‘life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna’ get’, just like the film itself.[xvi]
Another method you can utilise to reveal theme is to feature ‘counters.’ These are things which contrast with your theme, so for example with nakedness, you could have a character who always wears two jumpers regardless of the weather.[xvii]
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[i] Pg. 176, ‘The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers’, J. Gardner 1983
[iii] Pg. 178, ‘The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers’, J. Gardner 1983
[v] Pg. 176, ‘The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers’, J. Gardner 1983
[vii] Pg. 178, ‘The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers’, J. Gardner 1983
[xi] Pg. 156, On Writing, S. Stein, 1995.
[xii] Pg. 157, On Writing, S. Stein, 1995.
[xiii] Pg. 157, On Writing, S. Stein, 1995.
[xiv] Pg. 158, On Writing, S. Stein, 1995.
[xv] Pg. 177, ‘The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers’, J. Gardner 1983
[xvii] Pg. 177, ‘The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers’, J. Gardner 1983