Theme is a slippery concept. The prevailing wisdom among writers is that if you apply any deliberate force to your theme, you’ll end up with a heavy-handed Aesop’s fable. On the other hand, a story without a theme is shallow escapism at best and an unrealistic flop at worst.
Theme is arguably the single most important facet of a memorable story. Vivid characters, witty dialogue, and killer plot twists can certainly carry a story by themselves, but without theme they will never deliver their full potential. And yet, no theme at all is often far better than a poorly delivered theme.
How to Create a Powerful Theme Every Single Time
If you concentrate too much on theme, you risk alienating your audience through moralizing. But if you squelch all thoughts of theme, you’re likely to rob your story of its central life force, its heartbeat, its meaning. So what’s a writer to do?
The key is the link between theme and character progression. As with almost every other aspect of story, character once again is the vital key to making your theme come to unforgettable life. Ultimately, theme is the lesson your characters will have learned (or failed to have learned) by the end of the story. Theme is inherent in your characters’ struggles and, therefore, to the story itself. The best of themes well up effortlessly and even unconsciously from the heart of the characters’ actions and reactions.
In Joseph Conrad’s classic Lord Jim, the saga of a young sailor who is haunted by his one cowardly act, the theme could perhaps be summed up as the repercussions of betrayal. Because the theme is a natural outflowing of Jim’s initial action (saving his own life instead of aiding his ship’s drowning passengers) and his subsequent reactions (fleeing in shame, hiding out on an Indonesian island, and, ultimately, learning from his initial mistake and refusing to save his own life when the island comes under attack), Conrad’s vicarious views on the subject can never be construed as moralizing or off-point. Indeed, the theme is at the very heart of the novel. Without it, Lord Jim would merely have been a rambling tale featuring the journeys of an ambiguous and forgettable young man.
Theme and Character, Character and Theme
The key to strong theme is strong character progression. The changes your character undergoes in the chapters between the inciting incident and the climax will define your theme. But these changes must flow naturally from the characters. If Conrad hadn’t presented Jim as an idealistic young man who desperately regretted his actions aboard the Patna, the ending in which Jim chooses to sacrifice himself on the island would never have rung true. It would have come across as forced and unrealistic. Conrad would have been guilty of moralizing—that blackest of authorial sins—and Lord Jim would certainly have never reached its classic status.
So how does one go about implementing theme? Or perhaps the better question would be—should one go about implementing theme? Many writers avoid deliberate thoughts of theme in their first drafts. They enter their stories with little or no intention for a theme. Then, typically somewhere in the middle of the novel, the characters will do or say something that suddenly dangles the scarlet thread of theme in front of the delighted author’s nose.
How to Find Theme
From the moment of a story’s conception, I have my eyes stretched wide to catch that first glimpse of a possible theme. The single most important trick for capturing the sometimes elusive and always ephemeral theme is to pour myself into creating authentic characters who react to their various crucibles in authentic ways.
I’ve come to the point in Dreamlander, my current project, where I have to watch my step and make sure that my main character’s every action, every word, every thought rings true. Because, as an outliner, I knew where the story would end, I had a pretty good idea of theme before I ever started writing. What I didn’t have a good idea of was exactly how my character’s intermediary actions would snowball toward that ending.
Now that I’m approximately two-thirds of the way through the story, I know my characters much better than I did when I began, and I can see places in the early chapters that I will need to strengthen to make the characters’ actions and reactions matter on a deeper level. Although I’ve known since the beginning what the thematic questions for this story would be, the answers, as they sometimes do, took their time in coming. But because I knew the questions and kept them firmly in mind throughout the writing process, I was ready to answer them when the plot and the characters had progressed far enough.
Are You Asking Yourself These Thematic Questions?
Whenever you’re ready to start thinking about theme, as yourself the following questions:
What’s the main character’s internal conflict?
For most novels, this is a question that gets answered very early, since it will drive the entirety of the story.
Which of the main character’s views will change as a result of the story’s events? How and why?
This is where you’ll find the underlying force of your theme. Your character’s views will define his actions, and his actions will define the story.
How will the main character demonstrate his respective views and attitudes at the beginning and the end of the story?
This is an extension of the previous question, but it is vital because its answer will demonstrate the changes to the reader.
Is there any particular symbolism that can reinforce the theme and the character’s attitude toward it?
Like theme itself, symbolism is often overstated and therefore generally better when culled organically from your own unconscious mind. For example, sometimes you’ll find yourself using a particular color or image to represent something; if the symbol proves effective, you can later go back and strengthen it throughout the story.
How can I use the subtext (the unstated) to exemplify the theme, so that I won’t have to spell it out for the reader in so many words?
When it comes to theme, the unstated is almost always more powerful than the direct. Often, in real life, when we find ourselves learning lessons and changing views, we can’t immediately define the changes in precise language. And neither should your character. Lord Jim didn’t have to tell us that his actions on the island were a direct result of his earlier cowardice; it was obvious from the subtext and would, in fact, have been weakened if Conrad had mentioned it outright.
Story without theme is like ice cream without milk. But to be effective, theme must be organic and, often, understated. Like all the finer points of writing, theme is an art, but certainly one worth mastering.