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How to Find Your Thematic Principle

thematic principleThere are words I think of as “infinite words.” These are words that express more, in their essence, than we can ever quite seem to explain. They’re the words of poetry. Indeed, many are complete poems all in a single word.

For me, one of those words is “theme.”

Theme is one of those endlessly fascinating subjects you can study all your life and never quite nail down. You circle it many times and think you’ve got it captured in some neat little formula, only to discover you’ve seen just one of its faces, one of its many ambiguous and numinous aspects.

That’s fun. It’s also frustrating.

For a writer—or, indeed, any artist—who is trying to consistently create stories that are thematically strong and solid, our finite relationship to the infinitude of theme can often feel akin to facing down the night sky in an attempt to understand the universe. As with so much of writing, we either go mad, or realize “the struggle is the glory.”

Last week, I offered a bird’s eye view of how I see theme. That post was the first of quite a few discussions on theme, which I hope to posit this year. Today, I want to investigate the thematic principle.

What Is Theme?

One of the reasons theme is a tricky topic to master is that it is also often a tricky topic to talk about. Because it is such a vast (and abstract) subject, every writer seems to have a slightly different definition. I learned this first-hand via the many Writing Questions of the Day (#WQOTD) I’ve conducted on Twitter and Facebook over the years. One of the questions I occasionally ask is the simple “What’s your story’s theme?”

The responses span the gamut from writers who rattle off single-word summations (such as “responsibility”) to writers who fret because they can’t confine their theme to a single word. My personal preference for summing up theme is to look for the “Truth” at the heart of any prominent character change within the plot. But other authors will, with equal validity, choose instead to identify underlying topics or recurring motifs, many of which are never made explicit within the narrative.

This myriad of subtly different approaches can create confusion about what theme actually is. After all, every single one of these approaches seems legit. And they are legit—because every single one of them, although not necessarily definitive in itself, helps us gain a bigger-picture view of story. Just as importantly, each of these views provides metrics by which we can consciously analyze and perfect what we are doing.

In future posts, we’re going to look at theme through the lenses of plot and character, which will help us see its more specific and explicit manifestations. But first we need to enter the subject through the doorway of theme itself.

And “theme itself” is perhaps best summed up by its simplest definition:

Theme is a unifying idea or subject, explored via recurring patterns and expanded through comparisons and contrasts.

Because theme often gets boxed into the narrow view of its being nothing more than “the moral of the story,” it’s helpful to also observe theme at work in different mediums.

Take music, for example.  I’ve always considered music the “purest” form of storytelling. Music is sheer emotion, manifesting in what is sometimes not just a mental or imaginative experience, but also a physical experience. Music tells stories and conveys truths without even needing words.

French composer Pierre Schaeffer said:

The moment at which music reveals its true nature is contained in the ancient exercise of the theme with variations. The complete mystery of music is explained right there.

The same could be said for story. Although we parade it through various costumes of intellect, action, and sentiment, story—like all art—is ultimately an expression of theme. The plot and the characters are just window dressing, providing visual metaphors for the author’s underlying (sometimes subconscious) ideas. If those ideas ring with universal truth, it is ultimately the theme, more than the plot or the characters, that connects with readers.

Thematic Principle: What Is It?

The simplest way of expressing theme is via the thematic principle. The thematic principle may be a word, or it may be a sentence. Either way, your thematic principle is the “single, unifying idea” we talked about. It your story’s representation and exploration of a universal Truth.

This Truth can take many forms:

  • It may prove a commonly held Truth (“wars are evil”), or it may be an attempt to disprove a Truth (“wars are a necessary evil”).
  • It may tackle the deepest questions of human existence (“why are we here?”), or explore our most deeply held values (“love is the most important thing”).
  • It may offer answers, either implicitly or explicitly (“love conquers all”), or it may choose only to raise questions (“does love conquer all?”).
  • It may focus on moral dilemmas (“is it okay to protect your own life at the expense of someone else’s?”), or it may simply highlight certain patterns (“life in the inner city”).
  • It may choose to comment (“Nazi Germany was immoral”), or it may attempt only to observe (“events of the Holocaust”).
  • It may choose a Truth that is high-minded (“life has meaning”), or it may be mundane (“high school is hard”).
  • It may be optimistic (“life is wonderful”), or it may be pessimistic (“humans are selfish”).

The one thing the thematic principle can’t be is vague. At first glance, this may seem an easily disprovable suggestion, since you can probably name great stories that seem pretty foggy in the thematic area. This is because excellent themes are rarely blatant or “on the nose.” But if a story works, you can bet that however subtle its themes may be, they are neither vague nor accidental.

There is a huge difference between a vague theme, told by an author who was never quite sure what the theme was, versus a subtle theme that permeates every part of a story so completely it becomes almost invisible via its very prominence.

When I first investigated one of my favorite movies, John Sturges’s classic The Great Escape, I initially found it difficult to sum up a unifying thematic principle in any explicit statement. My go-to metric for finding a story’s theme starts with identifying the Truth at the heart of the protagonist’s arc, then looking for mirroring statements in every aspect of the story. But in some stories, like The Great Escape, the themes aren’t so easily discovered (more on that in a minute).

Great Escape Steve McQueen

How Your Thematic Principle Affects Every Part of Your Story

Although condensing a story into a pithy “thematic principle” can sometimes seem overly simplistic, this is exactly what makes it a valuable tool. Your story’s essence, boiled down to its most concise statement, can become the guiding principle for your entire project.

Once you have discovered what your story is about on a thematic level, you will be able to gut check every single scene, every character encounter, every bit of incidental symbolism. The more cohesive every single piece of your story becomes, the more powerful your theme becomes—and the more you can rely on overwhelming subtlety, via your plot and character arcs, rather than falling into heavy-handed moralizing.

As we’ve discussed previously, theme is rarely born in solitude. Theme ideas grow apace with plot ideas and character ideas. This means you do not have to identify your thematic principle in isolation. Identifying the point of your plot and the change in your characters will provide big flashing arrows pointing straight at your thematic principle. (We’ll be talking about both of these in future posts.)

For today, however, I do want to talk about the thematic principle in isolation, specifically ways you can identify theme in stories where the plot and character arcs don’t immediately seem to point to a unifying idea or Truth.

Let’s look back at the movie I mentioned earlier.

The Great Escape is a true story, chronicling the tremendous effort of Allied prisoners to escape a German POW camp. Despite its huge cast, it is less a character story than an event story. So what’s the thematic principle? What Truth is this story sharing beyond that of a remarkable (if largely failed) historical gambit?

Never Confuse the Key Event and the First Plot Point in Your Book Again!

How to Identify a Story’s Thematic Principle

On its surface, The Great Escape may seem to reflect the reason writers often feel theme should not be approached consciously. This is because when theme is done exceptionally well, it is often difficult for the audience to verbally identify it. (Can you verbally express, off the top of your head, the theme of great musical compositions such as Aaron Copland’s Rodeo or Gustave Holst’s The Planets?) However, it’s important to note this difficulty for us as readers arises from the seamlessness of the story’s themes. It rarely, if ever, arises from the author’s ignorance of those themes.

Regardless whether you are trying to identify theme as the reader/viewer of someone else’s stories or as the author of your own story, one of the first places you should look is the ending. The ending always tells you what a story is trying to be about. (Some stories get there organically and successfully; others try to present thematic arguments in their closing scenes that, in fact, are only weakly supported by the preceding story.) However subtle or blatant, the Climactic Moment is the thematic point of the story, with the Resolution scene(s) usually offering some sort of explanatory context.

Once you’ve nailed down a concrete idea from a story’s closing scenes, take a look back through the preceding story. Is that same idea mirrored throughout? If not, it could be the story fails to work thematically. Or it could be you simply failed to choose the correct concrete definition for the story’s abstract theme. In that case, try again.

I have come to define the theme of The Great Escape as “the indomitable human spirit.” The story ends with most of the escaped POWs either dead or returned to captivity. On the surface, that doesn’t seem very indomitable. But two particular scenes prove what the story is about.

One is the response of the senior British officer to James Garner’s query about the worth of their gambit:

That depends on your point of view, Hendley.

James Garner Great Escape

This suggestion is immediately reinforced by the return of Steve McQueen’s character. After facing down the dejected camp commander (who is on his way to a court-martial), McQueen ends the movie with a cocky grin. His defiant strut back to solitary confinement is played against the jaunty but poignant closing score. The scene emphatically underlines the idea that this ending is not to be seen as a defeat.

Great Escape

When this theorized thematic principle is then played back against everything that happens previously in the plot and in the character development, we can then see how it resonates in every scene—but in such a subtle way that the power is magnified. The theme is shown instead of told.

One final thing to note is that (as previously mentioned) theme is a slippery thing. A story’s thematic premise can often be summed up in more than one way. Some people will look at The Great Escape and phrase its thematic premise differently. Usually, however, this variety just offers differing viewpoints of the same principle. For example, one person’s “indomitable human spirit” might be another person’s “virtuous patriotism.”

***

Thematic principle is the essence of theme. As the central idea which all other interpretations of a story’s theme either refer to or evolve from, it is a powerful place from which to begin planning and/or identifying your story’s theme.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How would you sum up your story’s thematic principle? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I enjoy your posts. It took me awhile to discover the theme. Originally it was the evil government.

    Recently i discovered the theme. I took a class on Writing a Query. Examining that aspect led me to my theme.

    Love. How far will a parent go to protect their children? Even though it is about rebelling against an corrupt government; the story is about the lengths two parents will do to protect their children.

    There are so many facets of writing. Log-line, elevator pitch, Twitter pitch, multiple sentence pitch, blurb, synopsis, query.

    Thanks for the interesting articles. Sitting in front of the Public Library’s warm fireplace. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This is an important example. What the story is *really* about is what’s happening on a personal level with the character. This should be mirrored in the external conflict, but the “large” antagonist rarely points as surely to theme as the “small” antagonistic forces.

  2. Sally M. Chetwynd says

    This idea of theme definitely is hard to grasp. I wonder if we don’t spend more time worrying about identifying it than writing our stories, from which the theme should develop and reveal itself. (This triangular relationship – plot, character, theme – carries almost as much mystery as that of the triune Godhead – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – which baffles so many Christians.) But your efforts to clarify the concept for the rest of us, in plain English, are definitely beneficial. Thank you!

    I think I captured my recent novel’s theme in the “elevator pitch” I use on the business card about the book that I created to hand out a couple years before the book saw print. “The Sturgeon’s Dance” is about Rory and Josie, who are psychically linked since birth but never meet until they are in their thirties, when he joins her office as a consultant. The story follows their struggles to figure out what is going on between them. (Of course, each has emotional baggage to sort through and set down – no baggage: no story!) The primary character, Rory, in particular is restless and finds solace in the wilderness of Maine. My “elevator pitch” is:

    “A soul’s search for that primeval fullness of joy.”

    I only found this when 1) I figured out what the ending was and then could work toward it, and 2) I discovered the turning point (subtle though it is) in writing a chapter that falls in the middle of the book, which sharpened the premise of the story from its very fuzzy, disorganized origins.

  3. Lynn O'Brien says

    This was a very interesting explanation of theme. I wondered if it was necessary to express this as one word or a sentence. Or if other sentences are required for different facets. The end couple of paragraphs showed that other so called themes are in fact different viewpoints or interpretations. So maybe I was not on the wrong track. I started to consider theme only when my WIP book was completely drafted. I started to think about it when a reader asked about the first character that is introduced on page one. How he’s kind and such a loving father (in olden times) and it will be impossible to justify what happens next. Within a few paragraphs his wife dies in childbirth, he orders the new born child to be killed in retaliation and abdicates all responsibility as a father towards two other children. He appears to be deeply traumatized and depressed. It comes out later why.(backstory) Eventually he can’t handle the climactic moment and commits suicide. This shocked a reader as she read what became of this kind loving man. This character is only one lesson in theme. Basically that there is good and bad in all of us and we struggle with it. That’s the first basic theme.
    The different metaphors (characters) that are introduced explore this. Good and Bad are not always in balance. (one facet) Some otherwise good people will be reactively so evil, or create such evil with the best of intentions, but usually in the most extreme of circumstances. egs take away a loved one, or harm their children.
    Then I had a really horrible two faced villain who kicked aside the theme and its truths with his nastiness. A character tries to help him be good. Doesn’t work. So frustrating. For me as well. He was originally good, kind, heroic, noble. Things happened to gradually push him over the edge. He would not fit the theme. I reluctantly had to admit the theme isn’t always correct for every character. Sometimes when good people turn bad due to injustice there is never a way to get them to see two wrongs do not make a right and allow the good they receive now, to retrieve the good in them. What started as moral outrage has turned them against anything good. Bad people can turn to good but good people who turn to bad can’t always turn back. Darth Vader didn’t, or did he? His back story was tragic too. And every story needs a hero versus a villain. So I have a hero who at times in an antihero (fits the theme), and a villain, who used to be a hero but turned to the “dark-side” for good. (Possibly a dark example of theme)

  4. Usvaldo de Leon says

    For me, theme is like Pluto in 1919: something we know is there but are yet unable to locate with our instruments. Plot and character come quickly but theme for me is always delayed, sometimes til the second draft.
    Your note that the ending is the key to theme is very helpful. Thanks

  5. Katie, here is an article about a diary made by a man who was part of The Great Escape: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/for-sale-a-pow-journal-documenting-wwiis-great-escape It’s up for auction!

  6. “However subtle or blatant, the Climactic Moment is the thematic point of the story, with the Resolution scene(s) usually offering some sort of explanatory context.”

    Thank you for this line. I often feel that the denouement is overlooked or at least given short shrift by writing instructors and yet I’ve always felt it was just as important as the other parts of the story. Done well, I think it can offer an emotional impact even greater than the climax.

    I haven’t been able to put my finger on the reason until now. Context.(!) You see someone crying, you don’t know whether it is joy, loss or rage until you get the broader context.

    Sometimes, after the antagonist is defeated and the credits start rolling, some small action or comment is dropped which reveals an unexpected piece of character background or motivation or the camera pulls back to reveal the broader context of the setting/conflict and the perspective of the _entire_ story can shift. You suddenly find yourself re-evaluating everything that came before from a new perspective.

    I’m going to have to update my mental model of how stories function now…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A great example of this is Woody Allen’s wonderful screwball film The Purple Rose of Cairo. The shocking Climax wouldn’t work at all without the poignant Resolution.

    • This is why I love to watch “deleted scenes” — they always add some little nuance to the character.

  7. Tom Youngjohn says

    Theme is how a story fits into Jordan Peterson’s modified Jungian archetypes.

  8. Katie, this is one of the deepest, most insightful articles on any subject having to do with writing that I’ve read in a very long time. I admire your courage in mentioning “universal truth” and its importance in story. We live in times when many people do not even believe in the existence of universal truth.

    I have a short story which I wrote organically. One thing that helped me see its theme (and I may not even understand it, or be able to articulate it, fully yet) was employing a technique I learned from the dear late John Yeoman: creating resonance with an image (or something else) repeated several times during the story.

    Thank you for a profound article which (in my case at least) will require many re-readings in order to plumb its depths and mine all its jewels.

  9. There is a lot to think about here, but I am still not convinced about music being “the purest form of storytelling”. At least, it appears to require a fairly major adaptation of the term “storytelling” I notice that you don’t attempt to explain the theme of any musical piece.
    I’d be very interested in your take on this.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The analogy only carries if you consider storytelling to be primarily an emotional journey–which I do.

  10. I think the theme of my story is “letting go of what you’ve lost and moving on.” The idea of being stuck in time vs moving forward to some imagined future seems to come up a lot.

  11. Casandra Merritt says

    I have a question on the Inciting Event: If my Inciting Event happens before the first chapter, do I need to include a second one in the story itself?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, you’ll need a beat halfway through the First Act that represents the Call to Adventure. Think of it as a turn that brings the protagonist still nearer to the irrevocability of the First Plot Point, where s/he will exist the Normal World of the First Act for the Adventure World of the Second Act.

  12. Casandra Merritt says

    Thanks, got it.

  13. Thank you for giving us so much food for thought. I need to spent time thinking before saying what the theme of my books is.
    I have 3 parts of a series published. Do you think each book needs its own theme, or should a series have one overarching theme? I would be interested to here your views on this, as well as those of your many readers.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s usually best for a series–especially one of interconnected stories–to present a unified theme. However, each individual can (and probably will) explore its own offshoots of that theme.

  14. *sigh* good news and bad news. The good news is that I’ve had it in the back of my mind that Maggie’s story arc was about “loyalty” — the price of it, the need to keep it up, how much do we give up before we have to admit someone no longer deserves it. [Can a theme or thematic principle be one word? I’ll work on that.] The bad news is that I now realize my “theme” has nothing to do with my proposed ending. (the murderer is caught, but it has nothing to do with the subject of Maggie’s loyalty). I guess this all needs a lot of work, but thank you for giving me some (more) tools.

  15. What is your take on having more than one theme, or when someone describes a book as exploring the themes of, say, home, love and justice. Or would you say that these several themes could all be boiled down to one over-arching theme?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      When it works, it is because there is an overarching link amongst the smaller themes. The litmus test is whether or not (and how well) they are all resolved in the Climax.

  16. Steve Little says

    Fascinating. I’m stumbling about writing my first novel and hadn’t considered theme consciously.

    On the surface, the story starts with one race serving another in the lead up to a war, and I’d considered it to be something like “the realities of war” or “why fight for a foreign power” or even “a boy’s life in the palace and the trench”.

    But, really, it’s about family legacy. A boy ends a war through violence – just like his father did. Yet he does it better. Morally, better.

    It ends with the main character’s people demanding he be their king (akin to the biblical story of Saul). I’m not sure what I should do with that demand. I s’pose I’ll know when (or more likely if) I get there.

    Regardless, the individuals, their family, and their people are all recognised at the end.

    Anyway… thanks. This helped me see that I need to end thematically decisive – rather than tie up events in a neat package.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds good! You’ve highlighted an oft-overlooked truth about theme. The best themes are almost always deeply personal. Successful stories are rarely about “war,” but rather about one person’s intimate journey toward a specific insight.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Do you know your story’s theme? Stavros Halvatzis examines theme as the controlling idea, and K. M. Weiland expounds on how to find your thematic principle. […]

  2. […] How Writers Become Authors with K.M. Weiland: Episode 460 – How to Find your thematic principlehttps://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/thematic-principle/ […]

  3. […] your characters’ adventures in their story world. Once you have identified your story’s thematic principle, the real work begins. How will you seamlessly join theme to […]

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