Theme. As someone who has had some difficulty grasping this seemingly obscure concept, I decided to write this post with two goals in mind. The first was to improve my own understanding of theme, while the second was to hopefully help anyone else that has the same problem.
So, What is Theme?
The Short Answer:
Theme is the heart of a story, the gooey caramel centre that holds it together in a cohesive whole and gives it meaning. This answer, however, though somewhat poetic, is more suited to the question of why theme is important, rather than what exactly it is.
The Long Answer:
Theme is the idea, the meaning behind a story. The themes of the story ‘are those ideas, patterns and issues’ which the story ‘ keeps returning to and re-examining.’ (Schaefer & Diamond, The Creative Writing Guide, 1998, p. 166).
Theme is often explored in the internal conflicts and ideas of the characters of a story. Because it is the meaning and the emotional core of the story, it is usually reflected in the characters, in terms of what the characters represent and what their internal conflicts are.
‘Fiction is a … subtle art, one that demands the reader to experience what the characters experience and thereby gain empathy for them, and it is from this human empathy that the readers learn of the story’s thematic concern.’ (Knorr & Schell, Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry, 2001, p. 207.)
In determining theme, ask yourself:
- What big question/s does this story asks?
- What do the characters represent?
- What are the internal conflicts of the characters (particularly the protagonist)?
- How are these internal conflicts resolved (if they are all resolved)?
- What are the recurring symbols and motifs throughout the story?
As an example, consider Stephen King’s Carrie. There are several clear themes, including religion and sin, and the associated guilt and blame; loneliness as a destructive force and the human need for love and acceptance; and revenge and the violence that can result when these basic human needs aren’t met and an individual is pushed to their limits.
These themes can be observed utilising the list of questions above:
- Carrie’s mother represents an obsession with religion and sin, and projects the associated guilt and shame onto Carrie
- Carrie represents loneliness and rejection, and by the end of the story, also revenge and destruction. She personifies loneliness as a destructive force. Her inner conflicts revolve around the ideas of sin and shame imposed by her mother, exacerbated by her discovery of potentially ‘evil’ supernatural powers, her desire for acceptance and love in the face of constant rejection, which is finally resolved (violently) by her subsequent descent into revenge after she is subjected to one cruelty too many.
- Recurring symbols and motifs throughout the novel include religious symbolism, the female body and symbols of beauty, and blood, which serves several symbolic purposes throughout the narrative.
- One of the big questions that this story asks is, could the final disaster that befalls Carrie and sends her on a destructive rampage have been prevented with a little compassion and intervention by those who stood by and watched her torment? This is personified in the character of one of Carrie’s teachers, who does attempt to help her a little throughout the book, but sorely regrets not taking more action by the end, when she has a moment to consider her own part in the chain of events. Perhaps most telling is her pity for Carrie when she is dying, even after the destruction she has wrought on the town.
There is undoubtedly much more that can be said on the thematic content of Carrie, this is just a quick overview as an example.
As a final consideration, here are just a few of the common themes that can be observed in many stories:
- Good versus evil, light versus dark, etc. (perhaps the most common of all)
- Consequences of sin and corruption
- The emptiness of attaining a false dream
- Love conquers fear, faith conquers doubt, etc.
- Revenge only leads to more destruction and unhappiness
- The worst atrocities can be committed with good intentions (the road to hell is paved with good intentions)
- The struggle for power, and how it leads to an endless cycle of destruction with no real winners
- Inner versus outer strength
- Survival, particularly in extreme circumstances, and what people will resort to in order to survive
Why is Theme Important?
Theme creates meaning and therefore emotional impact, which is the difference between a mediocre story and a great story that resonates with readers. Theme adds depth and cohesion, and, for a writer, a good understanding of theme is necessary to craft great stories that readers will love.
However, a writer doesn’t always have to know the theme/s before they begin writing. As noted by Knorr & Schell, ‘writing is a process of discovery, and if the writer learns nothing new, chances are the reader will not, either… Once the writer finishes several drafts of a story, she may come to learn what her story means and this knowledge allows her to clarify this meaning in subsequent drafts if it is too mute.’
In one of my own examples, when beginning my current novel-in-progress, I had a fully formulated outline, complete set of character bibles and was nearly 20,000 words into the first draft before the themes started to emerge.
Becoming overly concerned with theme, however, can lead to ‘preaching’ to your readers in order to hammer your ideas home by overtly manipulating the story. By all means, utilise theme to create meaning, depth and cohesion, subtly add motifs and symbols to enhance your theme where necessary, but don’t let it get in the way of the story. Subtlety is key.
The article has been a journey of discovery for me, and hopefully, if you are still reading it means I didn’t lose you along the way. In researching and writing this article I have clarified my understanding of themes greatly. At least now I can identify themes, in my own work and in others, and use this knowledge to craft more meaningful stories. Hopefully, this article will help you to do the same.
Jeff Knorr & Tim Schnell, Mooring Against the Tide: Writing Fiction and Poetry, Prentice Hall, New York, 2001.
Candace Schaefer & Rick Diamond, The Creative Writing Guide, Longman, New York, 1998.