I’ve been reading about writing. I don’t know why I do it. It only makes me think, and question – and no good can come that.
One thing I’ve never really got to grips with in the idea of a theme. What’s your writing really all about, when you get down to it? I’ve always constructed a story through character, setting and – perhaps especially – mood. I’ve never used an overall, over-arching ‘concept’ to keep my writing focussed.
But I’m always interested in learning and if there’s something I could use to make myself a better writer then it’s past time to bring it in.
A theme is the controlling idea of your story: a bold statement that sums up what the novel is truly about. It takes message of the final act and then qualifies it. Examples (stolen from Robert McKee’s Story):
- ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more violent than the criminal’ – Dirty Harry
- ‘Justice prevails when the protagonist is more clever than the criminal’ – the Columbo TV series
- ‘Hatred destroys us when we fear the opposite sex’- Dangerous Liaisons
Seems simple, doesn’t it? Your big idea at the front (‘justice prevails…’) and then the qualifier that makes your work unique. Well. I don’t know about you but I’ve not found it so straightforward. I’ve got things like:
- Chivalry: ‘States collapse when internet loyalties transcend national boundaries’
- Night Shift: ‘Survival can only be achieved when inner unity is gained’
- Oneiromancer: ‘Justice prevails when your heroes’ will is more than the enemy’s’
The idea is that you write the first draft, work out what the story is about, and then rewrite with this idea in the forefront of your mind: or come up with the idea first. Whichever you choose, this is supposed to help you keep your story focussed, to not get sidetracked.
But this whole thing is taken from advice to screenwriters, not novelists. Does it really help people like me? Does it not just reduce the whole thing beneath usefulness? A single sentence can’t convey the richness of a story. Maintenance of aim – yes, I can see how determining your theme would help focus the mind and stop too many side-tracks. But all my novels have multiple foci and are about more than a single sentence can carry.
Take Chivalry as an example. The theme could easily be any of the following:
- Tragedy unfolds as a father realises just how dangerous his daughter is
- Madness will destroy if it can’t be channelled
- Honour can only be achieved when maturity is gained
Which is right? Could these threads be tied into a single sentence – and is it worth even trying? Do we worry about subplots?
Theme. Complex, contradictory, contrary. I’d welcome your opinions as I’m yet to be convinced that it’s worth the mental effort.
And also, just to prove that nothing is simple, I took the image above from a blog on teaching that explains that main idea and theme are, in fact two wholly different things. The theme, then, of this post? Clearly it’s one of ignorance and stupidity.