Theme is a loaded word. In fiction, it aroused the suspicion that we’re preaching about something. Can’t we just give the story a compelling plot and great characters? Why should there be a theme?
The answer, I’ve been learning, is that theme is to help clarify for the writer, why she or he is writing the book. And what the book will be about, boiled down to its essence.
I usually come into a novel’s theme after working on concept and characters for a couple weeks at the outset of my planning process, I develop/recognize the book’s theme about then, and it guides 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.” In the James Bond film Skyfall, the theme was “Sometimes the old ways are best.” (In fact, watch for that line toward the end of the film. It slips in in a way that most people will not even recognize that the theme has just been explicitly stated.
(I won’t tell you the themes of my books, though. The reader isn’t supposed to figure it out unless they really work at it!)
This is an updated version of a blog post from January of last year. I brought it back for a re-blog, because I think this is a great subject!