Theme is a loaded word. It conjures up middle school English classes where you have to cough up what the writer was trying to say in Silas Marner. (Wake up before you fall over asleep and break your nose on your desk?) But a few days ago my publisher asked me to express the themes of my upcoming novel. Instead of freezing up, I was ready with my answer.
After working on concept and characters for a couple weeks at the outset of my planning process, I developed/recognized the book’s theme. It guided the major decisions of the plot and much of the execution. In fact, theme has guided every book I’ve written since 2008. Because of Brian McDonald.
At a memorable Write on the River conference a few years ago, Brian McDonald conducted a workshop on the subject of theme in fiction and screenwriting. Many of his examples came from film, which is a tighter medium than a long novel–but still, I came away challenged by the idea to state “what I’m talking about” in one sentence.
Regarding the statement of your theme, McDonald says: “That simple sentence tells you what to do. It says that your story must have a reason to be told – a theme. That’s what the conclusion is. In its most simple form, it is the moral of an Aesop fable. Every piece of the story is leading to that conclusion. All elements are there to support the author’s point.”
Are we going to hit the reader over the head with a lesson? No. McDonald maintains that we must be subtle. “The reader won’t know what the theme is, but the writer knows.” The reader will recognize an appropriate, cohesive, satisfying film or story. But as the author you will know the armature (McDonald’s term) and it will shape your decisions about what to pursue and what to leave out.
E.g., in ET, the theme was: “Eliott needs to learn empathy.” In Tootsie, “Wearing a dress has made you a better man.” (I won’t tell you the theme of my upcoming book. The reader isn’t supposed to figure it out unless they really work at it!)