Theme is a tricky beast. Elusive, yet all pervading; hidden, yet evident in every aspect of a tale, it is the element that makes story universal and eternal. It is the element that leaves a reader pondering long after the last full stop; that urges them to look inside and evaluate the facets of their humanity.But what is theme? And how do we find it as readers and convey it as writers?
Let’s start by exploring what theme is not.
Often when I ask young writers to explain what they believe the theme of their story is, they will write things like: horror, romance, courage, love, murder, friends, death, betrayal, humour, and so on. Sometimes, they will say, ‘My story is about a girl who falls off her horse…’ These things are not theme.
Horror, romance, supernatural, tragedy, humour etc. are genres, or categories for stories. These are umbrella terms under which stories fall, but they say very little about the thematic concerns of the work or the intention of the author.
Courage, love, death, murder, betrayal etc. are topics, or the subject matter, of a story. Topics lie on the surface of a piece of writing and convey what it is about, and what sort of events and characters might appear in a work. The subject matter can provide clues for theme, but it is not theme itself.
‘My story is about…’ is a red flag for plot – the building blocks of story – and plot is not theme.
So what is it? Horror writer, Dean Koontz, summarised theme when he said:
"Theme is a statement, or series of related observations, about some aspect of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author."
Let’s break this down:
Theme is a statement or series of related observations…
One way to recognise whether you are discussing theme is to remember that theme is always a statement, or a series of statements, about a topic.
…about some aspect of the human condition…
Theme explores, illustrates or illuminates something about what it means to be a person, and part of humanity. All stories, no matter whether they have human or non-human characters, are about us, and what it is like to be us, at any given point in our history or imagined future.
…interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author.
And this is the important bit that helps us to discern the difference between a topic (one word) and a theme (a statement). Any single topic (war, death, revenge) will have a multitude of ways that it can be written about; theme is how the writer talks about the topic. What is it that they are saying about the topic? What do they want us, as their reader, to think about the topic? In other words, theme is the writer’s take on a topic, not the topic itself.
Occasionally, when I ask students what theme is, they will say it is the moral of a story. Once upon a time – to use a cliché – this was true to an extent. Fable, fairy tales and parables certainly moralised, as did some longer works. A good example of a moralistic tales can be seen in Æsop fables, such as The Fox and the Grapes (read here):
ONE hot summer’s day a Fox was strolling through an orchard till he came to a bunch of Grapes just ripening on a vine which had been trained over a lofty branch. “Just the things to quench my thirst,” quoth he. Drawing back a few paces, he took a run and a jump, and just missed the bunch. Turning round again with a One, Two, Three, he jumped up, but with no greater success. Again and again he tried after the tempting morsel, but at last had to give it up, and walked away with his nose in the air, saying: “I am sure they are sour.”
“IT IS EASY TO DESPISE WHAT YOU CANNOT GET.”
The moral of this fable is summed up in the final statement: blunt, blatant, and in your face. Theme, however, is much more nuanced than a moral. Theme explores, exposes, and above all, it raises questions for the reader to ponder. A good piece of writing doesn’t provide the answers; it invites thought and contemplation. As Howard Pease notes in, How to Read Fiction: A Letter from Howard Pease to a Fan, theme is not ‘tacked on’ to a story, rather it is something embedded, for which the reader must learn ‘how to hunt, how to dig.’
Pease’s letter (which appeared in ‘The English Journal’ in 1954) is a brilliant explanation of theme, told in the epistolary form, to a young fan of his work. You can read the full text here.
Theme: What it is.
Simply put, theme is what you, as the writer, want to say about your topic. It is your intention and purpose for writing. It is the conversation you want to have with your reader; it is your way of getting inside their head and asking them to think.
Like everything in life, however, themes have varying degrees of sophistication. Some stories may be little more than fairy floss for the brain and they are thematically simple: Is it right to steal your best friend’s lover? Will good defeat evil? These are the stories we read in early in life, or that we take on holidays. They are not meant to stretch our intellect and have little in them that is enriching, but they still have a place if only to allow us to escape reality for a short time, or to prepare us for a deeper engagement with story.
The best stories are those that explore universal truths, or ask difficult questions, or reveal an aspect of themselves, or their society, to the reader for contemplation. Novels and stories that have been banned, or have achieved longevity, often have themes of this kind. They are the works that shake people up, that challenge norms, and start revolutions at the personal level and, sometimes, beyond.
Theme: Where to find it.
As noted above, theme is not stated bluntly. As writers, we embed our themes in the elements of our stories. Our characters are imbued with theme. Their actions in response to plot events, and the conversations they have, convey theme, while our settings subtly provide clues about what it is we are trying to say. Theme, then, is woven through story and, at the same time, is the foundation and the pillars holding our work together.
This ‘weaving’ of theme is what makes it so hard to find. As readers, we must delve beneath the elements of the story – those things that exist on the surface – to the place of implication, symbolism and meaning.
It is worth remembering, however, that for readers, theme is subjective. A reader brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to a piece of writing that will affect how they interpret or engage with a story. As Pease notes:
"Now a short story or a novel, like any work of art, may have different meanings for different people. Not always can you say the author meant exactly this or exactly that. Each individual will find his own meaning. For him, that will be the true meaning."
As such, while we weave theme through our stories, we also need to ensure that our writing is clear, precise and layered with clues that guide the reader towards our intention for creating the work.
Theme: How to convey it.
Writers have at their disposal, a number of devices that allow them to guide the reader in their search for theme. Sustained metaphor, allegory, literary allusion and symbolism are a few of these devices. Most significant writing will employ these techniques to deepen the work; the trick is to use them subtly. As with all creative elements, literary devices must feel natural to the reader, as though they are a part of the ebb and flow of the story. In coming blogs, we will explore some of these techniques and how they can be effectively used to enhance writing.