When I’m teaching at the Odyssey Writing Workshop and I bring up theme, some writers balk. They’re eager to learn about setting, character, point of view, plot, and more, but theme, to some, seems like an abstract, mysterious, high-school English class torture device that doesn’t relate to what they’re writing. Even those few who have fond memories of discussing the theme of Romeo and Juliet in high school often do little more than jot down a theme for their story, set it aside, and forget it.
But theme isn’t something to be avoided or checked off your prewriting list and forgotten. On the contrary, theme is an absolutely critical element of strong fiction. It’s more important than setting, character, point of view, style, or plot, because it is the organizing, unifying element, the CEO of your story that makes sure all the other elements are doing their jobs and working together.
How well can a story work without a CEO? Well, there’s a chance that all the other elements might work together on their own, if you have flawless instincts. But in my experience, no writer has flawless instincts.
But is it really important that all the other elements work together? Yes. Theme is the key to creating a unified story, and unity is the key to creating a focused, powerful, effective, meaningful, and emotionally resonant story. So checking in with your CEO at some point in the writing process could be extremely valuable.
Theme: More Than a Word
What is theme? For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on the dominant theme, a general idea or insight the entire story reveals. A theme is a complete idea, and so should be stated as a complete sentence. It should be able to stand apart from the story, without reference to specific characters or events in the story.
What are some themes?
- On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan: The course of a life can change in a moment because of a minor decision to act or not to act.
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien: Power is inherently corrupting.
- “Sandkings” by George R. R. Martin: Those who are abused can become abusers themselves.
- “The Distance of the Moon” by Italo Calvino: Love is fickle.
- “The Poacher” by Ursula K. Le Guin: Those raised to believe they are worth nothing will often come to believe it.
While you can begin your writing process with a theme and build your story from there, like a CEO hiring employees and giving them tasks–and some great writers do this–most writers don’t work this way, so we’ll leave that possibility for another time. For most writers, theme is best discovered and considered in the midst of writing the first draft, or after the draft is finished, to be used as a revision tool.
Discovering Your Theme
For example, initially you might just think, Gee, I really want to write a story where people are replaced by aliens who grow in pods to look identical to them. (If this sounds like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it is). You may not be sure why this idea fascinates you so much. But as you work on the story, what it has to say will gradually reveal itself to you, if you look for it.
Perhaps the protagonist’s co-worker is replaced by an identical-looking alien. Then his wife is replaced. Then his child. As you’re writing these scenes, trying to figure out whether the protagonist will be able to tell the difference between human and alien, and what that difference might be, you may find yourself gravitating toward a particular theme. Here are a few possible thematic areas for exploration:
- what makes humans special (how they are different from the aliens)
- what makes an individual distinct (the qualities that can’t be replicated)
- how well any of us know each other (whether the remaining humans recognize something is wrong)
Perhaps, as you’re examining your draft for theme, you discover it focuses on one of these areas. If, say, the pod people gradually replace the real people and no one notices, your theme fits within the third area, and you might state it this way: “We are all isolated and don’t really know each other.”
If you didn’t start your writing process with a theme, though, chances are that you’ll discover several different themes warring for dominance.
For example, perhaps none of the human characters notices that people are being replaced by aliens, until the protagonist’s child is replaced. The protagonist realizes this is not his child because he can tell the child doesn’t love him. This might carry a theme from the second area above, such as “The love of a child for a parent is special and intense and cannot be replicated.” This theme clearly conflicts with the theme conveyed by most of the story, because the protagonist and child are connected through this bond of love.
Revising with Your Theme
If you find yourself in this situation, which is likely, then you’ll need to pick the theme you feel most drawn to and alter your plot, characters, and other elements to emphasize that theme.
If you choose the first theme (We are all isolated and don’t really know each other–a theme favored by Marcel Proust), the protagonist can’t recognize that his child has been replaced. To give depth to your story, you’ll probably want to think about why people are isolated and don’t know each other, since this will be the downfall of humanity. Is it selfishness? Some inherent quality of human existence? If you go for the second theme (The love of a child for a parent is special and intense and cannot be replicated), then the story will need to focus on this special love between protagonist and child, and to contrast that with the protagonist’s feelings toward his wife and other characters he loves. We can see that he cares deeply about his wife and his sister, but that the bond is incomplete. Something in the complexity of relationships between adults, or between a child and an adult who is not the parent, creates distance that allows the clever aliens to convincingly imitate humans and never be detected. Exploring exactly what that something is will help to illuminate in what way the love between parent and child is special.
To check whether your CEO has all the elements working together to convey the theme, you need to reexamine and reconsider all the choices you’ve made. Every choice is important, but the most important elements to check are your climax and resolution. The ending is usually key in determining the theme.
The Power of Unity
I’ll provide one more example, using a story you may be familiar with: The Lord of the Rings. Above, I gave the theme, “Power is inherently corrupting.” Tolkien conveys this repeatedly throughout the books. The One Ring is the most powerful object in Middle-Earth. It corrupted Isildur; it corrupted Gollum. We see signs it has begun to corrupt Bilbo. Aragorn rejects the ring because of its corrupting power. Boromir tragically falls to its temptation. We see that both Galadriel and Gandalf fear its corruption. Frodo and even, briefly, Sam, show signs of falling under the ring’s power. Tolkien’s premise, his world, his back story, his characters, his point of view, his plot–all are created and developed with this theme in mind.
That is why, as much as we might wish Frodo would resist the power of the ring and throw it into the Crack of Doom, he can’t. He must fall to its power. When even Frodo, who has sacrificed and struggled to save Middle-Earth, is corrupted, the truth and tragedy of this theme hit home in a powerful and emotional way.
If Frodo had resisted the corrupting power of the ring and tossed it into the crack, the theme would have been something like this: Power corrupts evil or weak people, but not the truly good. This is a completely different theme than the one Tolkien wanted to convey and would have contradicted much of The Lord of the Rings. This climax likely would have felt random, weak, and unbelievable, and would have left the books feeling inconsistent and scattered. For the books to be unified around this theme, Tolkien would have had to change his characters to show that all those tempted or corrupted were evil or weak.
I think you’ll find, as you consider some of the stories and novels you love, that they have this unity, and out of unity arises power, meaning, and emotion.
If you’ve avoided theme or been uncertain what role it plays in the writing process, I hope you’ll give this a try. If you can discover your CEO and get all your elements working together, your stories will make a leap in their effectiveness and impact.
Do you think about theme as you write? What are some themes you find in your work? Do you ever find two contradictory themes warring for dominance?