Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Is Theme?

A question appeared in the comments of this blog asking for more information about theme. I'd covered the topic in previous blogs, but the questioner asked me, "What is theme?" This is my attempt to respond. If you'd like to share other thoughts, please include them in the comments.

One of the most difficult terms to define is theme? While sometimes called, the lesson, moral or main idea behind the story, theme is really more than that. A parable has a lesson and a fable has a moral which is obvious to the listener or reader, but theme serves more as a profound portrayal of the human condition.

Theme weaves through the plot, setting, and characters in a translucent thread that the reader extracts from his own experience or values. It communicates something deeper to readers than plot or story. Theme triggers an emotional response from readers, and without an emotion reaction, the story’s theme is usually weak or non-existent, or too vague to be comprehended.

Theme presents an infinite truth that makes a powerful impact on readers. It is often tangled in the goal of a the protagonist. It triggers emotion which is what clings to readers once the pages on the book have been closed and makes the story worth reading. Emotion has power to transport your story beyond entertainment as the them provides the impact of a universal meaning to your story.

This may sound vague, but theme is abstract, providing the heartbeat of your story. It cannot be forced. Author’s bring it to life by allowing the story’s truths to slip into the action, dialogue, introspection, and soul of the characters.

Some try to summarize this process by explaining it this way. Ask yourself, what did you learn from this novel? How did it touch you? Joy Cagil author of a blog on fiction writing suggests you ask this. What is the protagonist’s biggest decision to resolve the story’s conflict? These questions are about as close as you can get to defining theme. It is the underlying principle that motivates the protagonist to reach his goal, and it is a truth—belief or perspective—which most people hold in common.

Common themes might be that good defeats evil, money causes corruption, love makes the world go round, lies begat lies, gossip destroys, success is not measured by a bank account, jokes can backfire, friends stand by your side, people were not meant to be alone, freedom is better than servitude, love conquers all. I’m sure you can think of many, many others.

Think of novels you’ve read that have stuck with you and ask yourself why do you still remember this story? Besides plot, what message or value or truth did it leave you with? How did it impact your emotions? What did you take away with you when the book was finished? When you find the answer, you’ve most likely identified the theme of the novel.


sarahjayne smythe said...

Theme weaves through the plot, setting, and characters in a translucent thread that the reader extracts from his own experience or values.

That is perhaps the best, most succinct explanation of theme I think I have ever heard. And I think it is spot on. Thank you.

Chris said...

I actually copies this very sentence in a notebook I keep for jotting down writing advice I find on author blogs. I hope I don't sound stupid but I'm having a hard time understanding it. I'm struggling now to figure out what exactly the theme is in the novel I'm working on. I think I can grasp it when it comes to characters but how could you explain how it weaves through the setting?

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Sarahjayne - Thanks for letting me know you like the line. I believe that all elements of fiction need to weave into the fabric of a story in the same way -- unseen, yet there. Subtle yet important. Without it the who texture would shread.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Chris - Theme is one of those illusive ideas that can't be forced, but should be there.

Let's say your story is a fantasy, and the theme is good wins over evil--think of Lord of the Rings.
Your characters obviously are good and evil. That's easy to see. Think of setting. When the evil is around the setting is dark, maybe fiery, or shadowy. A bright aura seems to follow the good. We see good in the behaviors of the characters -- kindness, caring for others, perservering to save the world. The evil side we see selfishness, cruelty, perservering to destroy.

Dialogue will reflect the same. The good will find hope it what they're doing. The evil will focus on destroying.

If the theme is gossiping destroys, you don't have to be blatant about it. You will weave somoeone's gossip into the story and the "show" how it destroys someone's life. Without stating the theme, you bring the message to life through the character's struggle to right the wrong that's been done them. People root for the good guy - just as they did for Frodo in Lord of the Rings.

I hope that helps.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

The difficult I have in naming my theme is that my heart's theme (marriage is good) is only one of many themes that could be taken from my novel.

I am currently having a hard time streamlining the story *because* (I believe) there are so many possibilities. This is why I asked the question about finding theme.

Do you have any advice about narrowing it down?

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

A novel can have more than one theme but usually one is the most important. It's the universal idea that most readers will connect with. It's the one that is part of your character's goal and obtaining the goal or resolving the problem will bring about the solution, allowing the readers to cheer for the character's outcome.

When you write a story, you have something you want to say, and it's that message that becomes your theme. I hope this helps.

sanjeet said...

most succinct explanation of theme I think I have ever heard. And I think it is spot on. Thank you.
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