thematic principle header

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. Mary George says

    For me, ‘theme’ is simply what is revealed from a story well told.

    As I write, the story fleshes out the characters. And all the revisions distill what we would call “morals” or “values,” or even one singe human emotion.

    But one man’s philosophy is another man’s kindling . . . the main characters in my story have the life of an unborn child held as leverage. They deliberate loyalty, commitment and procreation.

  2. Thank you for this great post !
    I must say I’m quite excited to read that you’re going to be discussing theme further this year,
    as I’m having a bit of trouble developing a story from its thematic principle, which would be phrased as “the relation between identity and society’s expectations”…
    I would love to hear your thoughts on how to craft the best possible premise and story out of this approach in an upcoming post !

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’ll be diving more into the nitty-gritty of crafting theme in plot and character in future posts.

  3. I’d have to say, for superhero stories, good versus evil.

  4. Richard Jones says

    I enjoy these thought-provoking posts. Although the idea of high school being hard made me chuckle. In my current work I try to explain the universal tendency of government to abuse its authority. Some call it the tyranny of the majority. I think it was Churchill who described democracy as two wolves and a lamb debating what is for dinner. Only in our case it’s the tyranny of the politicians to misrepresent themselves in order to get a majority of votes and then abuse power once in office.

  5. “The ending always tells you what a story is trying to be about” – very helpful observation, thanks. I’m going to use it to test my current work in progress.

    Always loved The Great Escape but had never considered its theme before and I think your analysis is spot on.

    There is a lot written about being able to pitch a novel (or film) in one or 2 sentences. Do you think the theme and the pitch are similar?

  6. Brenda Felber says

    I know I should have gone right to work…but oh no, not me…I had to start reading your post and now I have all those links lined up in my tabs to read later! But thank you, I needed this as my work in progress is flaying a bit. However I know it will gel soon, after circling around someone being a legend in his own mind, how that flaw is revealed, and what it does to my protagonist when the hypocrisy and pretense are exposed. Well back to work…

  7. This arrived right as I’m working on my pitch to agents. Tremendously helpful. Thank you!

  8. Lisa Herron says

    Thanks for the article. I look forward to the upcoming installments.
    My theme is about connection (predominantly people to people, but also to place and the natural world) and how connection leads to purpose.

  9. This is a lovely post. I like that you mention music themes. Thinking about music, and the way the theme hold everything together… it’s interesting how, in an orchestra, say, if you just hear one person practicing, say, the cello, it might not sound like music at all, but as soon as the cello part starts resonating against the violins and piano, the other parts become so much richer.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I was browsing for quotes about theme a while back and found it interesting that what I kept getting were quotes about music. It immediately gave me a different perspective on theme in art.

  10. Glad theme is a recurring theme this year. ;0) I’m finding these posts so helpful. Thank you!

    For my WIP, the principle is something like: what/who should I place my trust in?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. I like “question” themes. They’re always interesting to explore. I know I always learn something knew when writing them.

  11. Will Wraxall says

    Love the post. But then your posts always have a way of unlocking stuff that I’ve sort of done in a subconscious, embryonic way, but haven’t fully formulated and expressed.

    I think I’d sum the theme of my wip up as ‘happiness is healthy self-confidence and acceptance of change.’

    It did take me a while to actually boil it down to that, I think because there are a few different riffs on it within the characters. There are angles covering fear of rejection or intimacy, guilt and co-dependency, denial, false bravado and overconfidence/arrogance.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You know, theme is kinda like personality. We can boil it down to a useful summary (such as Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram do), but it’s still just a representation of something much deeper and more nuanced.

  12. What a great post. There’s an old addage…when you hold a hammer everything looks like a nail.

    Your explanation of ‘overwhelming subtlety, via your plot and character arcs, rather than falling into heavy-handed moralizing’ is exactly what I needed to understand.

    Thank you very much!

  13. For me and my WIP, theme boils down to a single word – identity.

    Although the original draft written with no clear idea of where the story would end up, the second and subsequent drafts wrote the theme into the story without my being conscious of it happening. Maybe it’s because I write organically, I don’t know, maybe it is because it’s told First Person, again I can’t give myself an answer, let alone anyone else.

    My story takes themes and motifs from my life and those others I grew up with, and for us the target wasn’t only academic, but working out *who* we were or wanted to be, as apposed to what the school wanted us to be. That was a subtle thread running through our experience as teens with Cerebral Palsy in a small special school (the maximum pupil number wasn’t any more than about 110) so we had peers to aspire – or not – and a sense of belonging if, like me, you had a positive experience, or a sense of isolation if the reverse was true. Either way, there was a sense of community, a “do or die” one for some of us.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Interesting. I realized last week that my fantasy WIP is actually going to be about Identity as well.

  14. The theme of Zinovy’s journey is that, though human beings are not in control of the circumstances of their lives, they do control their destiny by the choices they make.

  15. Gary Myers says

    Thanks for another great, thought provoking post. I really struggled with the theme in my current WIP. But with each iteration it became clearer and, as it did, that clarity helped develop and unify the plot and characters. It’s like the theme became the lens through which everything else was viewed. If it wasn’t in focus when viewed through that lens, it wasn’t right. If it was, it worked.

    With my historical drama set in late 1900, a time of great optimism about a changing world, I’m really enjoying exploring the theme that “All progress comes at a price”.

    Thanks again, and I’ll look forward to future installments!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “It’s like the theme became the lens through which everything else was viewed. If it wasn’t in focus when viewed through that lens, it wasn’t right. If it was, it worked.”

      This is spot on.

      • Gary Myers says

        After commenting on yesterday’s post, a couple of examples came to mind; one general and one more specific.

        The protagonist in my WIP is a young woman seeking a career in a profession traditional practiced only by men. It’s not hard to imagine the obstacles facing her at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. I often find myself tempted to let her get it all off her chest and vent her frustrations with a powerful speech about justice and fairness and equality. But I immediately realize that I’m facing a serious problem. What fresh marks could I possibly make, through her, on such well-trodden ground? And what about my protagonist? Is someone who doesn’t leave fresh marks rightfully labeled a caricature? Seems like certain quicksand for a protagonist.

        My theme provides me with the tool to solve this problem. Instead of letting her just talk about it, the theme of “Progress comes at a price” reminds me that I should be showing her attempts to make progress and then having to react to the consequences, anticipated or otherwise. Or rejecting the toll that one path would demand and deciding on another course of action. I’m confident that doing so will both make my story more universal and show my protagonist as being more human.

        The second example concerns an upcoming scene at the midpoint where my protagonist breaks with a matronly benefactor who opposes her goals. I imagine the scene taking place in one of the dining saloons on the ship that’s the story’s setting. There’s a piano there, so I researched the top songs of 1900, looking for a historically accurate one that I could have someone playing in the background. One title intrigued me: “A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” Within a few seconds I was reading the lyrics and listening to a faint, scratchy and almost unintelligible recording that sounded like it was made on one of Edison’s original wax rolls. Turns out the song is about a woman who gives up her youth and the chance of romance with someone her own age to marry a rich man long past his prime (kind of a 1900 version of the 70’s Eagles hit, “Lyin’ Eyes”).

        Bingo! It fits my theme, hand-in-glove. It’s all about progress (attaining wealth, stature, security) at a price (captivity).

        Now how exactly can I best use it? Tantalizing possibilities. First to mind is having my protagonist throw it in the matron’s face as an example of the conventional life she won’t accept. It fits the theme, but it’s a little obvious. Instead maybe the protagonist realizes that she’ll find herself in a different kind of gilded cage if she reaches her goal. It does better show the theme as specifically related to my protagonist’s goal and the price she’ll pay if she reaches it.

        But is it the best use of it? No, wait – what if the protagonist throws it in the matron’s face as an example of what she doesn’t want, but then it’s the matron who sees the trap inherent in achieving the protagonist’s goal? She shows herself to be unexpectedly insightful, recalling the pain of compromises she herself made long ago. Not only is a supporting character now more three-dimensional, complete with her own theme-centric wound, but she’s also thrown the protagonist back on her heels!

        And, of course, someone has to be singing the song. Why waste the opportunity? What if it’s an influential society woman who thinks she can sing but can’t carry a tune in a bucket? Someone grumbles that they can’t stand her screeching, but laments that they can’t afford to offend her by leaving lest she drop support for their charity.

        The price of having reached high society?

        Sorry for the long comment, but as someone said, “I didn’t have time to write it short.”

        As always, your post was an inspiration. I have a scene to write!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Great stuff here!

          I particularly like this: “Is someone who doesn’t leave fresh marks rightfully labeled a caricature?”

          Excellent food for thought in that comment.

  16. Thanks for taking on the subject of theme. Finding my way through the writing craft by reading books and taking courses left me wondering, “If they can’t define it, why discuss it?”

  17. Diane Schmidt says

    Like Brenda, I really shouldn’t have started your post instead of responding to work emails, because, as always, your topic was too intriguing – and something I struggle with – to stop.

    I pants’d my way through my current WIP and all along thought the theme had something to do with redemption. However, as you pointed out – which I hadn’t realized until you noted it – the theme pops up at the climax and claims the book is about whether we can really know another person. Big difference!

    I wouldn’t have made the connections without reading your post this morning.

    Now I can get back to my day job feeling much less confused and more excited to return to my writing tonight.

    Thanks so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yep, my themes often surprise me too. Often, theme arises as much out of the *feeling* of a story as it does out of the mechanics–which is yet another reason why theme can often be so tricky to pin down. I’m writing a story that I really thought was going to be about Faith, but I realized last week that its core is really about Identity. The two tie together in many ways, but the latter is what the story itself is pointing to.

  18. Christi Minton says

    The subtlety of theme is what leaves me thinking long after I’ve turned the last page. The joy I get from a book that leaves me tangled up in thought days later is a wonderful indicator to me that theme is alive and well in that book despite my ability to nail it down to one phrase or word. Great post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My favorite stories are those I can return to time and again (like Great Escape) and come away with something a little new every single time.

  19. Robert Plowman says

    Great topic. First, hope all is well with you regarding the flooding in Nebraska.

    As you point out, theme is nebulous. Can you have multiple themes, say, duty & sacrifice vs. the temptation of absolute power? Or does that risk muddling your story?

    I also worry about making my wip to on the nose. For example, these lines, which started out as a bit of a joke by borrowing a meme from LOTR:

    “Speaking of legends, do you recall an epic saga about a ruler who bends mortal kings to her will with a magical ring?”

    “A metaphor for marriage perhaps? Hmm, a ring, that could also be a sexual symbol,” Lady Kresatia said.

    I laughed. “I don’t think so. There was this wonderful line, something like ‘One ring to rule them all.’ Wouldn’t that be convenient?”

    Lady Kresatia laughed too. “Would you really want ten husbands?”

    “Certainly not, which must be why she brought them all in and in the darkness bound them.” I glanced at my ringless fingers. I had no need for a magical ring. I wore the crown of Polis.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The more concise the author’s approach to a unifying theme, the more control he’ll have over the story. However, so many ideas and truths in life are inter-related. In your instance, duty and power are really just the exploration two opposing answers to the same question.

  20. Casandra Merritt says

    Love this! You know, I have always had that same problem with identifying the theme of one of my favorite books, Kidnapped. I could never pinpoint any specific thematic principle, but have always heard that Stevenson’s works tend to “raise questions.” I came to a similar conclusion as you did a few days ago, when a closer look revealed that everything seems to point to one central idea, somewhere along the lines of “people are not what they seem to be at first.” Or in other words, not all that glitters is gold. I’ve also had that problem with my own story, writing pages of lines describing what my thematic principle is. I ended up with a list like yours above, and wondered why they all seemed to work. Thank you so much for writing this post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice. I haven’t read Kidnapped in years and years–but I think that interpretation makes a lot of sense.

  21. In every new post, I realize I have so much to learn… Thanks for this post!
    I was trying to sum up the Thematic Principle of a couple of movies. But, I can’t think of one for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” movie. In case you have watched this one, of course, what would be the Thematic Principle of it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haven’t seen it I’m afraid, so can’t comment there. From what I’ve heard about it, I bet it has something to do with the power exchange between men and women.

  22. Such a great movie example! The theme of my novel is “the light is within us”. The main character is obsessed with light – natural and unnatural, and learns that the light she seeks is within herself and always with her.

  23. Kelly A Larivee says

    Just want to say thanks for your always thought-provoking and (usually) creatively inspirational posts. Whenever I’m stuck, I turn to you! Your insights–and the comments and ideas that follow from fellow writers–are a living, changing part of the tool box, and much appreciated!

  24. Funnily enough I didn’t work out the theme of my current WIP until I wrote the last chapter. It turned out to be ‘Which is more important: freedom or responsibility’, something I struggle with in my own life!

    Thanks for all your tips. I’m now examining my character arcs and seeing how I can work this in without bashing my readers over the head with it.

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