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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.


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