The Writer's Writing Guide: Theme

Previous chapter      Next chapter      Table of contents

w _When I was first taking writing classes, a teacher said to me, "Rachel, your work is imaginative, well-written, and full of great imagery. But it lacks theme, and theme is necessary if you want your work to have deeper significance." I was startled by this comment, but then saw that she was right: I was writing for the language and the characters, and was neglecting the deeper levels of the story, the place where it all ties together into our unconsciousness, the underlying meaning. I was neglecting the theme.

I then set about trying to understand what is meant by theme. I'd heard literature teachers use the term, but had never quite understood what they meant, nor how they excavated the theme from a story. Nor, consequently, did I understand how an author used theme. What it inserted consciously? Could the writer herself articulate, "The theme of my story is that modern society is alienating?" What was theme?

Let's start with some definitions, so we know what we mean. Books on composition tend to refer to theme as the central idea of a piece which runs through the entire story and unifies it as a whole. John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, says theme is what the writer truly believes and can affirm for all time. Janet Burroway, in her textbook Writing Fiction, says that theme is what the story is about — not the characters or plot, but the abstraction, the idea behind the story. Moreover, she adds, theme is what the story is saying about the idea — the judgments or attitudes that the story implies.

Here's how I have come to see theme. Theme is what the story is saying — definitively or speculatively — about humanity and the laws of the universe.

Let's look at the difference between idea and theme. Idea is more about the content of the story. Theme is larger than that — more opinionated, more abstract, more along the lines of contemplating or illuminating the great principles of life. For instance, many writers write about sexuality, which we'll call our idea. But some writers address sexuality in a way that says that people are cold and deserving of empty marriages, others in a way that says people are romantic and justice will prevail in love, others in a way that says people use sexuality to connect and that that is good, others in a way that says people use sexuality to control and that that is good.

Same overall content, or idea, but different approaches, or themes.

How do you find your theme in each story?

First, realize that you don't enter a story with the theme in mind, any more than you enter a friendship knowing what it will teach you about life. In fact, very often we begin friendships expecting to learn one kind of thing, and then discover through the process of the friendship that we are learning a very different thing.

The same happens when you write a story. You expect it will be about, let's say, the necessity of the death penalty, but in writing it discover that you are writing about the tenacity of sorrow. In addition, you were planning when you began the story to learn — or communicate — your theme in a decisive, unassailable way. Then what you found as you wrote, developing your characters and working through the narrative with emotional depth, that this story was not presenting a decisive theme at all, but was instead forcing you to confront contradiction, or rethink basic suppositions, or learn something only to unlearn it, only to relearn it with a new twist, only to rethink that new twist yet again.

Theme grows up during the writing. In fact, it must grow during the writing, because otherwise you run the risk that the reader will feel preached to, the characters will be paper dolls who are little more than your mouthpieces, and the whole piece will feel artificial.

So how do you figure out your theme? Must you figure it out at all?

I don't think you need to be explicit all the time about your theme, but you do need to feel the piece has thematic coherence — that the deeper issues about humanity and/or the laws of the universe are drawn through the story as a whole. If you begin the story with a scene that illustrates the cruelty of schoolchildren to anyone who is different, then you want to think about continuing with the theme of cruelty at home, or how one might escape cruelty while at school, or how cruel people, no matter where they are, suffer themselves as well.

Thematic coherence is also possible when you make a shift partway through a story. Let's say you're writing about the importance of intimacy in a romantic relationship. But then partway through the story, the events reshape the thematic orientation of the piece, so instead of being about the importance of intimacy, it's about the inevitability of separation. As long as you glide through the thematic transition, taking care with your transition, the reader will feel thematic coherence. In fact, if you handle the transition effectively and seamlessly, the reader might feel quite compelled by such a shift, because he will realize that he was drawn into the story expecting a light romance, and instead he got a deep, profound experience that has significance in his own life.

This brings up a very important aspect of theme. It's best when it cooks over the course of the story, so that the understandings the reader has at the end are different than those at the beginning. Your theme can undergo its own narrative development as the characters undergo theirs. How much more fun — and interesting — for the reader to enter a story thinking it will be illustrating X only to discover that it is really illustrating Y, or a different take on X than the reader had assumed. Remember: a story is not a photograph, a single flash. It is motion, which means it moves and reshapes over time. You can use this to your advantage with theme.

This is what distinguishes theme in fiction from theme in composition. Remember your teachers telling you that in your essays you needed to address theme in your first paragraph — that dreaded topic sentence — and then use the rest of the paper as supporting evidence? This is not what you should do in fiction. In fact, I see the relative overtness of theme as one of the primary distinguishing characteristics between essays and fiction. In essays, theme is uppermost, and often stated boldly in the very beginning of the piece. Then narrative and character (if character is relevant) follow, both chronologically and in terms of where the reader's attention is focused. But in fiction, the reader begins with narrative and character, and the theme follows. Only late in the game does the reader realize what the story is really about.

So how do you, the writer, develop theme? Here's the basic process.

First, when choosing your material, remember that being a writer is a holistic endeavor. You enter into a story being observant of the world and, at the same time, being reflective of yourself. Or, to put it another way, you incorporate theme by being externally alert while being introspectively perceptive.

This means that, as you write, consider — probably in the back of your head, since your concentration is focused on the narrative and characters — why this particular story idea captivated you. As you are writing — or when you take a break to go to the bathroom, or nap, or later that when you are jogging — ask yourself where the emotions and concerns of this particular story intersect with the emotions and concerns of your own life. This means that as you are writing, you do not need to "Write what you know" — though many writing books insist you should. Instead, it is much more important to "Write what matters to you." This is because your writing will be best when it gets you to take what's already inside yourself — an image, a character — and use it as your ticket to expand and explore and examine. That's not just so you learn. That's also where the fun comes in.

Okay, so you're beginning to figure out what's really going on in this story, and why it matters to you. Then what do you do?

This is where revision comes in. You will need to go deeply into the piece, giving it time and a lot of conscious attention. John Gardner describes it this way:

Having determined what interests him [the writer], and what chiefly concerns the major character, he broods on every image that occurs to him, turning it over and over, puzzling it, hunting for connections, trying to figure out — before he writes, while he writers, and in the process of repeated revisions — what it is he really thinks. Only when he thinks out a story in this way does he achieve not just an alternative reality or, loosely, an imitation of nature, but true, firm art.

Janet Burroway puts it somewhat differently. She defines it as "worrying a fiction until its theme reveals itself, connections occur, images recur, a pattern emerges."

I have certainly had the experience of seeing my theme jump up from the page as I was zipping through a first draft. I have also — probably more often — had to poke and ponder and fuss before I began to see what I was doing. Janet Burroway calls the moment when you actually see your theme as coming in a "minor convulsion of understanding." And it usually does happen in a moment, an epiphany. (More realistically, it happens in several such epiphanies, as you work through the layers of a story.) You'll be running to class, or falling asleep, or typing away on your draft, and bazhoom! You'll realize that you have nature imagery that is cold and stiff throughout the piece, and that the narrator is detached and self-loathing, and that her new boyfriend is warm even when he takes off his clothes. This may lead you to narrative developments (the boyfriend can thaw her through an actual physical act). It might lead you to structural rearrangement in the piece, or to dropping sentences that don't work, or to sharpening your metaphors so they are integrated into this greater whole. It might also lead you to realize that you do believe in the healing power of love — and that your story has this theme. Such a moment — this minor convulsion of understanding — almost always leaves us feeling a chill, a giddiness that what felt chaotic actually does have an organizing principle, and actually does feel real. Suddenly your writing will come alive. This is the moment when revision starts to fly, and when you know why you are pushing yourself so hard to write. You are pushing yourself so you can discover what you believe. You are learning about other characters — and introducing the world to other characters — so that you can learn about the world inside yourself.

Before we wrap up this chapter, it's important to address a few of the pitfalls of working with theme. Here are five problems connected to theme which might afflict you as a writer.

1. Beginning a story with a pre-determined theme. We do this when we are afraid the work won't speak to us on its own, and so we want to control it before it gets going. This is like deciding where your kid is going to college while you are still at the candlelit dinner that precedes his conception. It's an act of fear — fear of the process. It is also a declaration of a lack of faith in the process. And it is an attempt to dispose of the fear and override the lack of faith through control. But it doesn't work. As I mentioned above, a pre-determined theme leads to stiff characters and forced narratives. Experienced readers can almost always tell when a writer has begun her story with the theme uppermost in her mind. This is because readers reading such stories get the "message" as if they've been hit in the head with a two by four — yet are not fully absorbed by the story. The characters are thin, and the theme doesn't going through its own development.

2. Thematic greediness. This is a common mistake made by apprentice writers. You have fifteen thousand themes in one story, and you jump rapidly from one to the next without really treating any of them in depth. Most readers will experience such a story as choppy, unsettled. They won't necessarily put their finger on thematic greed as the culprit, but they will know that it doesn't feel coherent either. Thematic greed happens for a few reasons. One is that we haven't written enough stories, and so are trying to cram everything we think about or believe into each story. The other reason it happens is that we haven't given ourselves the patience we need to revise — or the egolessness we need to delete something that may be interesting but isn't working together with the whole. Thematic greed is solved by applying the basic remedies of egolessness and patience, and also remembering the importance of thematic coherence. It also helps to write a lot, because then you can always stick into the next story the themes you cut from this one.

3. Thematic shift that feels off. Sometimes this happens partway through a story, when we haven't been sure where to go with the piece, and make narrative decisions that don't work with the existing themes — or do, but we jump too abruptly to the next theme. It helps to think of your themes as being connected like generations, so that all shifts grow out of existing themes. I find that if I reread a piece which seems to be working narratively but which is choppy, there is a good chance that I wasn't paying attention to theme. This sometimes happens because the material is so potent inside me that I need to deflect it, digress from it, or ignore it. I either have to go back through and make some tough decisions — or, perhaps, realize that I need to work out something in my own life before I can address it in this story.

4. The ending that just isn't happening. As in mention in the chapter on Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, when we can't figure out our climax, it's generally because we haven't developed our characters. But when we can't figure out our denouement — our emotional coda — it's generally because we haven't worked through our themes. Denouements are where the reader fully feels the theme — even if the reader can't articulate it. Endings are always hard, but when you have no clue at all, it's because you don't know what you're really saying thematically. Go back into the story and ponder it.

5. You stare at the page or screen and can't figure your theme out — and, as a result, you can't figure your story out. Your two cures are time and reverie. Time just has to happen, but reverie you can attempt to induce. Your best approach is what I call reverie-producing activities. These rarely have to do with writing; they have to do with solitary activities which promote free-wheeling thinking, and hence a breakdown between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The best reverie-producing activities I know are physical exercise, especially solitary, aerobic ones such as swimming, walking, running, biking. Another great reverie-producing exercise is short naps, which I often take when I'm writing (sometimes even at my desk). I know people who use easy, repetitive tasks to achieve the same goal: gardening, painting a wall, shelling walnuts, sewing a hem. Whatever you do, make an effort to keep your mind to yourself. If you are running on a treadmill that's facing a TV, don't fall into the TV lock, stock, and barrel. You can glance to the TV now and then, but try to keep yourself in your own narrative, however disjointed that might appear to be. It's more important to float about in your own mind than to be entertained. Dreamers can turn into doers, but if you fall completely into being an audience member, you might forget to dream.

Previous chapter      Next chapter      Table of contents

©2016 Rachel Simon       sitemap        contact