“Every author has his own way of looking at life. And every author demonstrates it with every story,” says writer David Gerrold. What’s your theme? “is a question every writer should ask: ‘Just why am I writing? What am I saying?”
So what exactly is Theme?
Theme may sound like the grand ballroom of story, and in a way it is. But it’s also “incredibly simple,” says Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story. Theme is the story’s point. It answers the question, “What does this story say about human nature?”
Robert McKee in Story points out that “Story is a metaphor for life.” He says, “Each tale you create says to the audience: ‘I believe life is like this.” He concludes, “Write only what you believe.” Theme grows out of that belief; “it names a story’s root or central idea.”
Nancy Lamb in The Writer’s Guide to Crafting Stories for Children says theme is transcendent, like the “might of friendship, the transforming power of love, the untapped courage to do what’s right . . . Lots of books have more than one theme,” which “has multiple dimensions and is developed in multiple ways.”
Karl Iglesias in Writing for Emotional Impact says, “Theme is what makes your story universal, and thus emotionally significant.” So “most scenes, characters, dialogue, and images should ideally be a reflection of your theme.”
Which comes first: the story or the theme?
Cron suggests that instead of asking “What’s my theme?” ask, “What’s my point?” Because the point “is what your story is saying, specifically – and that’s what you need to sharpen before you begin writing. You can never get from the universal (aka the theme) to the specific (aka the story itself). Only through the very specific can you reveal a universal truth.” Her rule of thumb is: “Narrative gives birth to theme, not the other way around.”
According to Michael Hauge in Writing Screenplays that Sell, “Theme is the universal statement about the human condition. It’s the writer’s way of saying, ‘This is how to be a better human being.'” He cautions against trying to impose a theme on your story. Instead first develop character motivation, conflict, and plot and “then see what underlying principles come to light.”
So exactly how does a writer discover the theme in a story?
Jane Yolen asks this exact question in Take Joy. “How do you find your theme? You must ask yourself what your story is about. . . . Themes are like old adages: Too many cooks spoil the broth. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. True even through trite. . . . A trick I use is to write the flap copy for the book in my head as if I were the editor. A line or two that sells the story to the reading public.”
Blake Snyder in Save the Cat points out, “The hero is usually the one who carries the theme . . .” That’s because the hero has the most to lose. She’s the one who grows the most emotionally during the story.
Christopher Vogler gets more specific about how in The Writer’s Journey: “The theme of a story is an underlying statement or assumption about an aspect of life . . . The real theme of the piece may not emerge or announce itself until you have worked with the story for a while, but sooner or later you must become aware of it.” To find your theme, he says ask, “What is the story really about? If you had to boil down its essence to a single word or phrase, what would it be? What single idea or quality is it about? Love? Trust? Betrayal? Vanity? . . . What are you trying to say? Is your theme ‘Love conquers all,’ ‘You can’t cheat an honest man,’ . . . or ‘Money is the root of all evil?'”
So once you discover your theme, then what?
Yolen advises, “Once you have figured out the theme, go back through the story and make sure your characters are truly acting in a way that emphasizes it. But don’t over-do. Being subtle about your characters’ relationship to the theme is actually better than banging your reader over the head with it.”
“Knowing the theme is essential to making the final choices in dialogue, action, and set dressing that turn a story into a coherent design,” says Vogler.
When you know your theme, says Hauge, then “in successive drafts, you can lay in situations, action, description, and dialogue that strengthen the arc and theme you have discovered in your own story.
So theme is your story’s point, and “Your story’s point is your guiding star,” says Cron. It’s “the yardstick by which you can gauge the meaning of everything that happens, and so keep your story on course.”
Happy Reading! Happy Writing!
© 2014 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy morguefile.com