Wednesday, September 22, 2010

“The Theme of the Thing”: Elements of the Story, part 1

It is interesting to consciously try to think about a theme as you are reading a book. Or, for that matter, while you are writing one. If you have never tried this before, you might want to sometime.

First, one needs to ask oneself, "What is a Theme?"


Theme is a/an…


subject of discussion or composition:

the subject of a discourse, discussion, piece of writing, or artistic composition




distinct and unifying idea: a distinct, recurring, and unifying quality or idea


Essay or written exercise: a short essay or written exercise for a student


6. With distinct subject: with one distinct and recurring subject, principle, or idea

For writers, a theme tends to lean more towards #2: "A distinct, unifying, often recurring idea" that we usually don't even know is in our writings until someone else points it out to us.

Themes like to slip in quietly and take over, but even though the writer isn't usually conscious of their existence until later in the process, they do add a whole new level of depth to the writing.

Consider Shakespeare. If you've ever taken a Shakespearian Literature class, then you might know what I'm talking about. People read themes right into his work without pausing to wonder if he meant to put them there or not: Hamlet = contemplating death, Taming of the Shrew = gender differences (somewhat), Romeo and Juliet = consequences and the question of "what is actual true love?"…

And the list goes on.

Does this mean that Shakespeare knowingly put these themes into his works? Probably not. It is my opinion that most writers have no idea themes are slipping into their works and seamlessly taking over. But then one needs to ask oneself "how does this happen?" After all, we as writers don't MEAN for it to happen. Half the time we don't think our stories have anything to do with the themes that people read into them, so just how do these important little tid-bits worm there way in?

The answer is quite simple: it's subliminal. Ah yes, the mysteries of the mind! There are probably thousands of "hows" and "whys" and "what fors"that we can answer on this subject, but my own personal opinion is that everything has to do with Character. Writers care about their characters. We want to know what our characters feel, how they act, how they react, and what their thoughts really are. We want to immerse ourselves in their personas so deeply that it's as if we are actually a part of them – as much a part of them, in fact, as they are of us. We want to live out their lives at the same time that they live out their lives. And while we study and contemplate who and what our characters really are, the subliminal themes of their personal world slip into place and we DON'T EVEN KNOW IT!

How do they do that?!

Well, themes in a story are usually based on the writer's thoughts, ideas, morals, and outlook on the world in general. For example, if you are a Christian (as I am) and you decide to write a fantasy book (which I have) where the rules of this world and time don't necessarily apply in that one, you might still make your protagonist believe the things that you believe, or apply your morals to their actions.


  1. A warrior princess wouldn't wear provocative clothing: perhaps instead she prefers long skirts and turtlenecks. *what?* :D


  2. Your Hero doesn't just kill somebody because he likes blood and killing: instead he might fight with himself internally about the justice of the act. Would he kill anyway? Depends on the situation.

See what I mean? When we write or tell stories, we are trying to find a type of organization in the world (yes, even if we write fiction). To do that, we start with what makes sense to us. In applying what we know to make sense in our lives to our writing, we unintentionally apply our own understanding of things to the world we are creating. Because we probably relate best with our protagonists, we tend to make the protagonists' morals similar to ours. Note that I don't say we make the Protagonists' beliefs similar to ours, because a lot of times in Christian Spec-fic the point that drives the plot along is the protagonist discovering or even changing his or her beliefs. :D

Now let's go back and take a look at the definition of the word "theme". We find that a theme is a "distinct unifying quality, principle, or idea". We may not consciously put themes into our writings, but we sure as vanilla ice-cream had better not take them out!

Yes, themes are important. They take all the little elements of the story – the minute details, the small and seemingly insignificant scenes – and tie them together so that at the end your story makes sense. If, when told by a reader about a certain theme in your story, you decided to go in and completely dissect the writing in order to take that theme out, not only would you have to completely rewrite the entire story, but you probably wouldn't do a very good job at getting rid of the theme entirely and when you finished your story might not make any sense at all.

In short, themes are unifying. They make all the quirky-ness make sense. :D

I doubt that a writer can actually pin point all of the little themes included in their story. There might be one or two main ones, but if you ask 100 people who've read the same book to name 10 of its themes, odds are 8 out of 10 of those themes will differ from person to person. But a theme is something that a story absolutely can't do without. Even if they are unintentional, themes are an important element to any good story; in some tales they are more evident and in some tales they are less so, but they are always important.

Now, go take a look at some of your writings, really think about what themes might be included, and tell me what they are. I'll get you all started. One of the themes in "Song of the Daystar" is divine revelation. Another is discovering a true purpose… and those are just the easy ones (you know, the ones my mother had to point out to me. :D)

What are some of yours?



Galadriel said...

I can actually sum up the theme of my novel a lot easier than the plot.

Squeaks said...

Great post! I totally agree with what you said about "reading in" themes into writers works. It always bugs me when my English classes say that Shakespeare meant this and this and this and that such and such was put in secretly and means something else *gah!*. Sometimes I find myself wondering whether people are just reading more into his work than he actually meant. It does get a little bothersome lol :P

As for themes in my own story, well, it's only 2 chapters in and I haven't quite got a ton down (only about 8000 words) so I don't see the themes just yet :P Well, actually, one of them is loyalty...


Jake said...

I'm polishing my first chapter and prologue. :) Hopefully I can send it soon--soon meaning anywhere between a couple of days to a week or two. :)

Themes? I seem to have a dozen, lol! And that's my goal. I have a variety of things. :) One of them is 'Why does Saar/Aari [God] let bad things happen?' That's pretty common, I suppose. Others abound. :)