On Writing — The Theme’s the Thing

Theme reminds me of literature classes and discussions about what certain authors meant. I wonder if those authors would agree with the meanings ascribed to their works, or if they are laughing in their graves at our foolishness.

It’s bad enough saddling classics with themes, but I have never seen the purpose of theme as it pertains fiction today. I mean, who cares? When you read Grisham or King or Cornwell, do you stop and ask yourself what the theme is? Of course not. No agent or editor who considered handling one of my books ever asked me my theme, so I have to assume they don’t care either. Yet all the writing experts tell us we must establish a theme before we begin writing our novels.

Themes usually sound clichéd or silly, like “Murder doesn’t pay,” the basic theme of most murder mysteries, or “Love conquers all,” the basic theme of most romances. To a certain extent, all novels have the same underlying theme: “Who are we individually and collectively?” Good fiction brings us closer to knowing the truth about ourselves, our place in the universe, and how we relate to others, but as a theme, it is so broad as to be almost worthless.

Although I’ve never had any use for themes, I decided to do something different and establish one for my current work in progress, a take-off on apocalyptic novels. Turns out it was simple. All I had to do was look at the character sketch I created for the story, and I found this: “He will be forced to decide how much of his freedom he is willing to give up for safety, and how much of his safety he is willing to give up for his freedom.” Sounds like a theme to me. (And an unexpected use of my character sketch.)

Now that I have a theme, what do I do with it? When I need to figure out what my hero will do, I can refer to the theme to help me understand what he wants, what his motivations are. If I need a subplot, I can choose one that will enhance the theme. I can give relationships, especially minor ones, a greater significance by keying them into the theme. I can use it to give scenes and dialogue relevance beyond the immediate. Best of all, if the theme does what it is supposed to, it will give the story an underlying structure and resonance it would not otherwise have.

Maybe those dead writers are not laughing in their graves after all. Maybe they are high-fiving each other because we got what they were trying to say.

4 Responses to “On Writing — The Theme’s the Thing”

  1. Suzanne Francis Says:

    I have a theme in every book I write. It helps me a lot. But it isn’t anything as overt as “love conquers all.” In the first book I explore the theme of betrayal and whether or not it is ever justifiable.

    The second book deals with different forms of slavery and freedom.

    Book III is about responsibility, to ourselves and others.

    Book IV–hmm… I think that is part of the problem with book IV. I need to define it a little more.

  2. Bertram Says:

    I never realized it before, but theme is for us writers, a way of defining our work and focusing on what we want to say, rather than for readers.

    Good luck with your books.

  3. lynn doiron Says:

    Prejudice (or bias) was/is the theme of the novel I put aside back in August. Bias against “show” people at the turn of the century, prejudices against women, ethnic groups, religious or spiritual followings. I think part of my problem with picking the work back up is that I want to embrace too much, the scope is too broad . . .? As I wrote the word “scope” here, I had the image of holding a telescope to my eye backwards so that the target was further away and features more indistinct rather than refined.

  4. telterim Says:

    I’ve always written from the scenes that come to my minds eye. Plot, storyline and theme then work around those images, depending on how strong they were. Most of my themes are straight forward, I always believe there is something more, we can all be more than we are. I take a character’s starting point and see where they could get too. They might make it or they might not, as in life. Some things depend on luck and others on who you know.

    All the best

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