Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
What is theme?
When students of literature are asked to identify elements of a novel or short story, they’re pressed to pinpoint what the story is about.
They could answer with plot details, something about the actions of the characters.
However, they could also go for a behind-the-plot meaning, something less about events and more about significance, perhaps even a conclusion they’ve drawn from the book.
I’m talking about theme.
Plot is the events of story; theme is the meaning behind or revealed by story.
Theme is sometimes defined as the moral of a story, though theme doesn’t have to be a moral. Morals that double as theme include these: cheaters never win, honesty wins the day, and good guys finish first.
Of course, a story may just as easily prove that cheaters often win, liars quite often succeed, and bad guys beat out the good guys.
But a story’s theme may not come out as a moral at all.
Themes are often a declaration of the human condition. Or a truth that explains human behavior.
Consider an author whose books seem similar. You may even tire of them, saying they’re all the same. What do you mean by that?
Maybe each is about mothers and daughters. Maybe the author pursues the same theme in every book—the relationship between mothers and daughters is complex.
There’s no moral there. But there is a theme to the body of work and to each story in that author’s list of books. The theme is a recognizable one that speaks to the human condition.
Themes may deal with a specific group—pre-school boys are fearless; immigrants are both clannish and brave; pirates live out the maxim, I’m looking out for number one.
Themes may deal with principles and abstractions rather than people—love means sacrifice, hope is painful, death stalks each of us from the moment of birth.
Themes don’t have to be true in the real world—they are true in terms of the story they come from. That is, you don’t have to believe the theme is true in your daily life; you may actually hold the opposite viewpoint. But if the story has been written such that the theme is obvious to readers, the theme is true in terms of the people and events in the story.
Theme is often stated in absolutes: someone/something is/does something.
Themes tend to be universal. The theme love conquers all can work for peasants in 1350 Europe, wealthy owners of a 1880 New York townhouse, colonists on Nebulus 5 in 3535.
Themes tend to be serious, even in humorous works. When you describe the way people behave or how big concepts (such as love) work, you’re getting into people’s beliefs and strongly held opinions. You might hear an argument from a reader who disagrees. You might hear from legions of fans who agree. You might start a war between factions from both sides. (Which could only help sales and bring attention to your writing.)
Writers can decide upon theme before writing: this story will be about the hypocrisy of love, the blindness of love, the pain of love. Then the writer crafts words and scenes and character and events to point to his theme, love stinks.
One problem with deciding theme before writing a story is that the book can come out very, very preachy. With everything pointing to the foregone conclusion, there’s no opportunity for characters who disagree or situations that might lead to a different conclusion. Stories written with a theme clearly in mind are often heavy handed. (Not always, of course. But especially true of new writers with a cause to promote.)
Writers can write with no theme in mind, waiting until the first or second draft is complete before determining where the story went, what theme has emerged. Then, the writer can tweak—with a light hand—phrases and scenes to highlight the theme.
Writers can also completely ignore theme, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions. And readers will. They will usually finish a book and have strong thoughts or feelings about it. Theme is something they’ll take away without intending to. When someone asks what the story was about, they may tell the plot. Or, they may report the theme—it was about love conquering in the face of hatred. It was about fear being stronger than common sense. It was about how strangers can work together to overcome a common enemy.
Stories that are written well always have a theme. Maybe several. Well-written books are tied with threads and common elements that speak to theme, that allow readers to draw conclusions about life.
Poorly written books, with unrelated plot threads, characters, and events, may not have a theme. The story elements may be so far apart that the reader can draw no conclusion about the tale. The story may lack unifying elements and cohesion. There may be no theme. A story that’s not about anything is probably not one readers will remember. It’s probably not one writers want to write.
A good theme can be a unifier. An ill-formed theme can make a book incomplete and unsatisfying.
Books may produce several themes. One reader, going through a divorce, may read one theme from a story. Another reader, one focusing on the freedom of being away from home for the first time, may read a different theme.
If you’re asked about theme for a school project, be ready to defend your choice for theme. Look for character dialogue or thoughts that lend themselves to theme—what conclusion does the character make? Look also to characters’ actions—characters act on what they believe. What they believe is an indicator of theme. Study the change in a character, how he’s grown throughout the story. What made him change? What conclusions has he drawn about life? Character growth and insight also point to theme.
Themes can be old, new, reworked, and restated. They can be softly spoken or boldly shouted. Themes from one book to the next—even for the same author—can be contradictory. Remember, a theme is true for the book it comes from, not necessarily for life or for other works of fiction.
A writer doesn’t have to believe a theme he writes into a story.
Greed is bad Life is fragile
Hope deferred hurts Children are innocent
Quitters never win People will let you down
Evil men can’t change Everyone lies
There’s no such thing as love
You could, of course, play with these—
Greed is healthy Living is for the tough
Hope is an illusion Children are born in sin
Quitters live longer People are good at heart
Reformed men know how to toe the line
People want to tell the truth
Love touches everyone at least once
Variations on a single theme—
Everyone lies Lies are painful
The truth is painful Liars want to be caught
Lying is healthy Lying is unhealthy
Lying breaks up families Lying bonds people
A lie is in the eyes The truth hurts
The truth is always best
The truth isn’t always best
A lie will always be exposed
People want to tell the truth
Theme is a natural product of good storytelling. It doesn’t have to be planned, but it can be enhanced. Overemphasized, it makes for bad story. Played just right, with the right emphasis by character and situation and revelation and word choice, theme becomes another satisfying element in good fiction. An element that will remain with the reader far longer than plot or character quirks, setting or dialogue.