Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Theme Hidden Within

Themes in my writing is something I've struggled with in the past. My problem was that I disliked being hit over the head with a message when I read, and if for a moment I had the feeling a writer had written the novel not for the story but for the message hidden within, it ruined the experience.

So how could I justified seeking to put my messages in there? Theme was nice and cute, but it didn't matter much to me: all I cared for was the story.

Looking back (but not that far back, really), I know I was both right and wrong. The story is what matters, but it will always carry a theme.

Either I leave it there, dangling awkwardly, misunderstood and misused, or I learn to use it and blow even more life in my stories through it.

I woke up to them reading Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel, which had a few great suggestions to find out what mine were. At that point I could tell what my theme was, but my grasp of the concept of them was still shifty.

The following day, Larry Brooks posted about the elusive theme on Storyfix. I love his way of explaining theme:
Theme is how a story touches you.  What and how it causes you to think about.  How the story mirrors and/or comments upon real life.  Theme says something worth saying, even when it’s obvious.
I can roll with that definition of theme. Suddenly it doesn't seem like trying to force a message and preach. It's the universal impact the story has, and through what it can reach your readers. I might not be the best at incorporating it yet, but you can bet I'll be playing with theme in the coming writing.


  1. Great post, Claudie. I still struggle over theme and making sure I'm not being too heavy-handed. Speaking of Donald Maass, he's teaching a 'story masters workshop' with another of my favorites, James Scott Bell, and Christopher Vogler in November. Now if I could just get Maass, Bell, and Brooks in the same room together! Nevermind, I might explode from squee overload. Messy.

  2. I bet they'd have a lot of fun cleaning it up. :P I'm reading Bell at this very moment, and I love it. The exercices are handy to wrap your head around the concepts.

    As for theme, well, I look back at my work once I have a storyline and figure out what are my themes. It feels less heavy-handed if they emerged naturally and I then highlighted it than if I forced it in.

  3. I always thought of theme as a recurring image or feeling within a book that in some ways distill the novel.

    The two novels I turn to for the single best execution of theme I have read in my life are The Scar by China Mieville and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Both establish clear themes, some more metaphorical and ephemeral than others but each one offers a recurring set of images and ideas repeated throuout the books.

    I've never thought of themes as moralizing or a hidden message. They are a set of tools that can strengthen the overall work.

  4. This is a really great post! When I originally began the WIP I'm writing, I had trouble with themes. I thought I knew what they were but I felt like I was shoehorning them in. (Shoehorning? I think I just made that up.) So I gave them up and decided to write the first draft then go back and worry about themes later.

    What happened was several themes became obvious and unplanned while I was writing. These were important to the characters and the story even if I didn't realize how important they were to me. Looking at other work I've done, I think themes have to exist organically in order to work best. We can prod them a bit, but once you point at them, name them, and expect them to perform for you they start to feel plastic and forced. That's when you get the "preachy" feeling.

  5. Che: If you're refering to recurring images or sentences in a novel that carry a meaning, I've always heard those called motifs. YA author Hannah Moskowitz had two fabulous posts on the difference between theme and motif, if you want to check it up.

    Sommer: Sounds a lot like my own experience. I prefer not to get too concerned with theme until after the story is rewritten. I can polish the scenes and dialogues to make it shine through once I revise.