Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, July 29, 2015 12 comments
Theme, simply put, is the Why of your story. James Scott Bell calls it “the meta-message”: the insight, lesson, or new way of seeing things you want readers to take away from your story (Story and Structure, 130).

Theme wants to be heard (photo by SQUAIO / morguefile.com). 
To use a cooking metaphor, theme is a powerful flavor that should be able to be tasted all through a work.

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? 

12 comments:

  1. You put that very nicely. I'm with you in the fact that I want a strong theme in stories I read. The longer I read and write, the more I want one--even if I disagree with it.

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    1. The more a theme is shaped, especially if the author is artful in doing it in subtle ways, the more a story tends to linger in your imagination, I think. The ones we disagree with especially--those themes challenge our existing ethics and cause us to reassess our beliefs (even if we don't change them, that reassessment can be stimulating and growing).

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  2. I enjoyed this post. I'm rewriting a cozy mystery right now, so I've been thinking more about plot than theme (even though I'm a punster at heart), but when I think of it, some of the best mysteries I've read do have a theme, and they are the stories that linger in my mind. Your post gives me something to mull over while doing my rewrite.

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    1. Mysteries are concerned with issues of justice, so there's always an ethical stance being sussed out, I think. Like you, I don't always know fully what my theme will be, but one always emerges that I try to shape in revision.

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  3. Uh, that was panster, not punster! Although maybe a few puns would jazz it up. lol

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    1. Punster pantsers can always be counted on for spontaneous humor, right?

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  4. I tend to start thinking about theme during rewrites and edits, but usually, I'm rather laissez-faire in my approach. I see what comes out, and then make sure I focus the story to highlight the most important theme. But usually it happens on its own so I don't do much.

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    1. Maas's book that I mention in the post has some helpful ideas about how to do that shaping. Most of it is subtle changes rather than big structural things.

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  5. Although I am a planner, I find themes unfold as I write. It's one of my favorite things about writing--being surprised by treasures unexpected, and then polishing the gems to shine bright within the pebbles of structural elements.

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    1. I think I've heard the mixed method called a "plotser" hee hee. I would especially find trying to pre-plan theme difficult, so it's good to know that even those who to plot ahead can leave room for surprises. Because they're what make writing especially fun.

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  6. Sub themes are what give the story complexity and interest. Stating the main theme in a sentence is great and, for me the thing that keeps me focused. Those sub themes are juicy bits that I love to develop along the way. Love this post.

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    1. I like your mixed approach. That sounds like a cool way to have a mix of control and spontaneity.

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