|Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com).|
Theme is woven though the shape of the story arc, through ethical dilemmas characters face, through which characters are given the role of hero and villain, through key characters’ attitudes, through characters’ conversations (including their word choices and allusions to other artistic works), through setting and description, through pacing the plot to emphasize some actions and characters over others.
And yet, theme is one of those aspects of fiction that seems to deeply divide the writing community.
Some say you should know your theme and be able to state it as a sentence. Others say if you can state a theme as a sentence, then it’s probably a pretty lousy one that’s poorly crafted and about an inch deep.
Some believe you should have the theme fairly firmly cemented in your mind by the time you go from rough to second draft. Others say you likely won’t recognize the theme until you’re many drafts deep in the process.
I suspect some of these arguments fall along the planner/pantser fault line in the writing community.
The planners would want to know what the overarching thematic thrust is before they commit much to paper. And being tidy, they might even go so far as to draft a dozen versions of their statement of theme early in the process.
Pantsers are more likely to let the story unfold and see where their imagination takes them. Multiple themes might emerge that must then be winnowed until the best remain. Pantser themes that grow out of this process are more likely to be multi-faceted, not easy to sum up in a sentence.
Of course, there are also those who question whether you “need” a theme at all. Donald Maas, in Writing the Breakout Novel, argues you will regret avoiding the issue of theme. He compares stories without a theme to a conversation with a horrible bore at a party. You walk away wondering what the point was to his ramble, and remember almost nothing of the content--only the discomfort of having to hear it (229).
I struggle to think of a single story that doesn’t some thematic content, even if it’s a bit unshaped. Humans are meaning-making beings. Even elementary students’ rambling, episodic tales have thematic elements. They express an underlying ethic that values some things and repudiates others, deems traits worthy of reward or punishment, shows goals as worth pursuing or avoiding, characterizes relational patterns as positive or negative.
The question therefore becomes not whether one will have a theme, but how much will you shape it? At what phase of the process?
As you contemplate theme, here are some key ideas to consider.
• What is this story actually about? Love? Risk? Healing? Community? Individualism? Maturation?
• What is the nature of my hero’s journey? Away from what and toward what?
• What virtues will I advocate and reward? What vices will I criticize and punish?
• What symbols best illustrate my theme?
• What other literature or films can I allude to that have elements that could support my theme?
How actively do you shape your stories’ themes? At what phase?