Thoughts on Story Theme

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 couple days ago, I actually used theme to get out of a twist on a novel I’m writing. Situation: Great big plot. Lots of subplots. With so much material, so much to tell, how do I pare it down to a cohesive story?

At the recent Write on the River conference, I heard a hot presentation on the subject of theme in fiction and screenwriting by Brian McDonald. 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. What convinced me to try this was what McDonald said about subtlety: “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 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 next book (you’re not supposed to figure it out unless you really work at it) — but I will say that after about an hour of work, my book came clear to me. I wrote down nine or ten lame and then increasingly telling theme sentences until I hit on the one that resonated so deeply I had no doubts. Caveat: I’d already done weeks of work on plotting this book. I’m not sure a consideration of theme is wise too early on in your planning. Theme emerges later, or so I believe. Not sure what McDonald would say… since I headed up that conference I had to come in late on his presentation.

Great stuff on theme on McDonald’s blog Invisible Ink.

5 Responses

  1. Anonymous says:


    It makes me happy just to read your blog and see your smiling picture at the top but today, you have made me extra happy. Theme isn’t a word I’ve heard a lot over the past few years and I was starting to wonder if us poor “conciously thematic” writers were dinosaurs.

    Might I ask which book so that I may look forward to it when it comes out?


  2. Kay says:

    Re: Theme

    The book is Heart of Fire, Book Four of the series that began with Bright of the Sky. And it’s the last book of the series, thus all the plot threads!

  3. washii says:

    Silas Marner?!

    You mean that was supposed to be an actual middle school book? Gah, how dare that get mixed in with my ‘Watership Down!’ I’ll have a few choice words to say to a middle school teacher of mine now.

    I had to re-read ‘Silas Marner’ at the end of Jr. high school (had, actually being of my own choice) for me to be properly interested in it.

    And now I’ve only read Braided World and Maximum Ice. I’m so far behind.

  4. Kay says:

    Re: Silas Marner?!

    Well, if you picked up SM on your own you’re way more literary than I am! I am behind on my reading too. I have the stupid habit of writing down books that I want to read on Post It notes, and then losing them.

  5. washii says:

    Re: Silas Marner?!

    Well, I blew most of it off when it was assigned for my ‘advanced’ reading group. I had felt somewhat bad about it two years later, and kept having odd feelings that I should attempt to read it again, voluntarily. Came out of that experience pleasantly surprised by the book. It was just a very bad assigned-reading experience.

    After the SM assignment, I had my choice and am vastly glad that I picked up ‘Watership Down,’ as odd as it is for a male adult to be reading about a warren of rabbits today. Which reminds me, time to re-read it and ‘Tales From…’ as well. After that, I’ll probably read through Braided World again.

    Unfortunately, I don’t read as much as I did in elementary school. I blew through a good 20+ books from the NCW Regional Library (yes, I am referring to of Wenatchee) by mail one summer. Atleast you write down your choices somewhere. I normally don’t even get that far.

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