Some novels haunt us years after reading them.
Other novels hold our attention to the end and are soon forgotten. What distinguishes the two? Why do some books, written well enough to keep us reading, leave us ambivalent?
The reasons why a novel might fall short are plenty, but when a good novel leaves readers indifferent, the problem is often the same. The writer neglected to pull the thread that draws the story together.
What is the thread? Theme.
Joyce Carol Oates—
The story’s theme is like a bobbin upon which the thread of the narrative, or plot, is skillfully wound. Without the bobbin, the thread would fly loose.
In paintings, theme resonates with the observer. In music, theme gathers up a composition and bonds the listener to it. In filmscores, theme swells beneath a scene, and the audience’s hearts swell. In literature, theme intersects the reader’s humanity. Theme is the novel’s undercurrent, the power at work behind the scenes. Theme gives a story its soul.
You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.
As it pertains to fiction, theme refers to the universal truth explored in a work. Embodied in the hero and his or her pursuit of the story goal, theme probes recognizable ideas, life choices, ethical questions. By demonstrating the implications of an aspect of humankind across the hero’s journey, it provides story with its psychological, philosophical, and-or moral underpinnings. The hero’s story translates into readers’ lives. Theme speaks to the conundrums we face. Theme is the insight that hits home. It’s the issue beneath the story—within the story.
Melville said, probably in a grandiose way, To write a mighty book you must have a mighty theme. I do think there is something to that. You need not have a grandiose theme but you must have an important theme. You must be trying to write about important things, although a truly fine writer will deal with seemingly unimportant matters and make them transcendentally important.
Theme sometimes can be summed in a word—love, death, solitude, betrayal. The theme of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is loneliness. The theme of Othello is jealousy. Reaching into the hero’s story, drawing from the human condition, literary themes tell also a version of the human story—a version of our struggle with issues like identity, self-worth, human worth, convention, rebellion, corruption, power, ignorance, oppression, ambition, failure, tolerance, hope, honor, capitalism, communism, vanity… The list is endless.
Theme is Not…
Theme is not plot, story, or genre and does not imply the subject of a literary work. A war story can have a theme of love, and a theme of diversity can find expression in romance, just as poverty can be the subtext of sci-fi. Theme is woven throughout the treatment of subject so that theme and subject serve each other in plot and become inextricable from story. A statement of theme would not read the same as a statement of plot, as you might imagine in the example of Romeo and Juliette and Good Will Hunting. The two stories have little in common beyond a thematic exploration of the power of love.
Theme gives a novel its haunting quality and timeless appeal.
The writer who displays [the more fundamental motives of human nature] effectively in a work of art has a greater chance to achieve lasting, widespread appeal.
STORY BEGINS WITH A STORY IDEA
Theme is not the seed of story. Most writers don’t start with a theme and build their stories around it, even when they have convictions they’d like to address. While they may take up social causes in life, one’s position on social issues reflect data stored in the left brain. Writing, or rather the creative arts, begin in the right brain, in the creative center that houses the imagination.
If a writer tracks his convictions in the imagination, it’s possible to begin with theme—to use art as a deliberate means of advocacy. Dickens, it’s been said, wrote A Christmas Carol as a “letter to the editor” to demonstrate Victorian England’s need for compassion towards the poor. With most writers, though, theme follows story idea.
That’s good news if you never thought of the novel as taking on a universal issue. Nor is it bad news if you believe literature is obliged to address social concerns, as the best novels do.
Yes, most writers start with a story idea. For reasons I’ll touch on later, it’s advisable for first-time novelists to do the same. From story idea, a character that could take on or impede the pursuit of the story goal emerges. Sometimes a character will come to mind and inspire the story idea. These two elements, though, while born of imagination, almost always embody the writer’s convictions.
We create from who we are—from our passions and interests and personality. Our stories reflect our values in the way sleeping dreams reflect emotions our subconscious minds are struggling to sort.
Whichever comes first—story idea or character—from these, the gametes of the novel, theme exists in the DNA.
HOW TO IDENTIFY YOUR THEME
Theme must never be assigned as an external concept imposed on a story. The relationship is not multiple choice, mix-and-match. Theme must come from within the story to merit its place in the story. Theme is not the subject of the story but must agree with and support the story premise.
Prior to sitting down to write a novel, the writer should solidify his understanding of the novel he wants to write. The first sentence to the last—every scene, every nuance of character—must serve the story. You don’t need to know how the story will transpire, but you do need to know what you intend to do—your purpose(s), by which I mean the concepts that will give shape (external: action, dialogue, events) and substance (internal: characterization, reader identification, meaning, subtext). Then, from the myriad possibilities of what you could write, you’ll select according to your purposes and be able to defend your choices, knowing with confidence that a given choice belongs in the story because it serves the story’s purpose(s). In that way, the completed work is a cohesive whole knit with logic and enriched with meaning.
Theme is not only a component of plot, it’s also one of the coordinates by which to navigate plot. Without an awareness of theme we would meander. Without deliberating on theme, we would squander opportunities and fall short of creating haunting works that outlive our time. And fortunate for us, we needn’t look far to search out our story’s theme.
What is your story about? Who is your story about?
Who is your protagonist and what limitations will impede her pursuit of the story goal?
I recently worked with a writer plotting a romance between a person of orthodox religion and a hippie. She chose love as the theme, but after looking at the two main character’s cultures (listing tenets in a side-by-side comparison), she saw how cultural expectations would conflict with love. In the process, she came to understand each character more fully and recognized the inherent theme of personal freedom.
In the description of your story idea, look for common ground. By this I mean, look at how the details fit together, as well as how they clash (sources of conflict). Focus on your characters—on the link between who they are, particularly your hero, and the story idea.
The writer’s choice of theme flows out of the hero’s emotional disposition—his psychological make-up and/or worldview.
Can you put your finger on the forces that drive your hero? How about the fears and limitations that hold her back? What’s the issue your hero needs to understand so she might grow, be free, and realize her potential?
The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.
A story begins with a hero who takes on a goal and ends when the hero achieves (or fails to achieve) her goal. An additional element, which coincides with the story goal, is the hero’s character arc.
The character arc refers to a character’s inner journey from an emotional need or lack to an understanding of that need or lack and its resolution. This emotional need or lack is not the story goal. It is a wound resulting from a childhood experience that distorts the character’s perceptions of current day and limits her actions.
Why should the hero’s emotional need or lack come from a childhood event? Because having an emotional wound complicates what otherwise would be a normal life transition or pursuit. Those without the hero’s emotional wound are able to navigate the hero’s concerns without difficulty. The hero’s history, however, has created fears that exaggerate her feelings or behavior in regards circumstances that play off her wound. The story goal that she will pursue will arouse these fears, which pose internal conflict and set the stage for the insight she needs to discover to become whole.
This insight, the key to the hero’s emotional healing, is the theme gene. Identify it, and you have your theme.
In the above illustration, notice how theme weaves through the story. The action plotline and the character emotional development plotline coincide with each other. All three are integrated. All three interact as they unfold. Envision the depth theme brings to the hero’s journey. Theme plumbs beneath the story to lift meaning from the story.
Theme in Action: An Example
Will Hunting is the underachieving hooligan and hero of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck’s Good Will Hunting. His story begins with him pushing a mop through the halls of MIT. On a chalkboard he finds an equation written by acclaimed mathematician Professor Lambeau. Will solves the equation and doesn’t sign his work. The hero of Good Will Hunting lives an anonymous life and shuns belonging to any community, aside from the South Boston streets he grew up on and the handful of blue-collar buddies he can trust. Except towards these few, he lacks empathy. His tendency to assault anyone who disgruntles him is how he winds up in Lambeau’s custody and the office of psychologist Sean McGuire where he’s forced to face his past.
We soon learn from Will’s file that he was abused in foster care after the death of his parents. When Sean asks who besides Chuckie are his friends, Will names Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Frost, O’Conner, Kant, Pope, Locke—like-minded but dead companions. Sean says, “Yeah, but you don’t have a lot of dialog with them. You can’t give back … You’ll never have that kind of a relationship in a world where you’re always afraid to take the first step because all you see is every negative thing ten miles down the road.”
At any point, Will could have a full ride at the school of his choosing. Inhabiting a population endowed with his superpower, though, terrifies him to the extent that he prefers janitorial labor at minimum wage. Instead of using his intelligence to expand his world, he uses it to build a fortress that none can penetrate. The intelligence differential between him and Chuckie is a failsafe, a way to preserve distance, a source of power should he need power to protect himself. Anger and intellect are Will’s weapons. Certain that life will reject him, he uses these to reject life.
But bar-hopping one night introduces Will to Skylar, a Harvard student and intellectual peer who represents both a world of hurt and the fullness of life beyond Will’s fortress. Skylar, too, has known loss. Will, Skylar, and Sean share this ground—Will lost his parents; Skylar, her father; and Sean, his wife. The story’s theme is echoed in Sean’s life, which also is spent behind barricades following the death of his wife. Like Will, Sean squanders his gifts teaching psychology to disinterested kids at a junior college. But unlike Will and Sean, Skylar embodies freedom. She’s well-connected, open, and moving towards a future without limits.
After Will tells Sean about Skylar, Sean asks if he’s called her for a second date. Will says, “Why? So I can realize she’s not that smart, that she’s fuckin’ boring? Y’know—I mean…this girl is like fuckin’ perfect right now, I don’t wanna ruin that.” Sean calls him on it. “Maybe you’re perfect right now. Maybe you don’t wanna ruin that.”
And that’s the crux of Will’s emotional wound. The world known to him is a perversion he only partially survived. He believes the indoctrination of the abuser and expects others to treat him in kind. The world will reject him because he remains the same noxious stain scraped off someone’s shoe.
Sean reveals his perception of failing his wife to Will. His anecdote highlights the bedrock of love—not extraordinary, heroic love, but everyday, take-it-for-granted love. It comes with a built-in acceptance that keeps it sound in spite of failings and disappointments. When he gets to the core of Will’s belief, he holds Will, comforting him with the affirmation of belonging that a child would receive from a parent. “It’s not your fault,” he says. Hatred tormented his abuser, and nothing about Will incited what he suffered. In exposing his own shame and taking on the surrogate father role, Sean, too, experiences a breakthrough. The session frees both characters to move beyond their wounding. Will and Sean throw off the shackles of alienation they had adopted to cope with their pain.
In a bold commitment to his newfound faith, Will leaves Boston for the first time to live with Skylar in California.
- Story idea: An angry, disenfranchised young man who can solve almost any intellectual problem meets his soul mate who gives him the motivation to solve, with help, the emotional problems that destine him for a bitter and imprisoned life.
- Story goal:Will wants to accept and return Skylar’s love, which will require him to become her emotional peer. In the big picture and in keeping with the story’s title, he’s hunting for goodwill—for the good Will—and to enlist his will in the pursuit of courage to live a good life.
- Wound: Will believes he is worthless and unlovable and the world is unsafe.
- Wound’s effect (forces that drive and-or limit the hero): Violent and uncontrollable anger, fear of intimacy, autonomy, and anti-social instincts
- Insight: He is worthy of love and can therefore trust love.
- Theme: The power of love
- Thematic position: Only when you are able to love yourself will you find the courage to open yourself to receive and love others.
Once you grasp your hero’s dramatic need, point of view, attitude, and how he’ll change in the course of his story—specifically, the insight he needs to grasp onto for emotional healing—you’ve identified the material from which to define your novel’s theme.
POSITION ON THEME
Earlier in the post, I named the theme of Good Will Hunting as “the power of love.” As we see in this story, theme development involves more than theme as a general concept. Perhaps I should say less than theme as a general concept, as theme development involves honing in and narrowing theme’s field to a specific truth that is inherent to the story.
While we use the word theme to talk about thematic position, distinguishing these terms helps to clarify the process of developing theme.
Love, solitude, betrayal—themes name broad concepts. To ground theme in something more substantial than platitudes, we need to transform our theme from a general idea to a specific statement of belief. We need to take a stand on the role theme plays in human affairs. In the developmental stages of fleshing out our story idea, we define theme by weighing in with our position.
It’s not enough to demonstrate the struggle between good and evil. We must give readers something to think about. What’s more, we must create cause for readers to think about what we give them. We must demonstrate a statement that says something relevant about the struggle between good and evil.
Thematic position is the writer’s viewpoint, his belief or opinion about the theme. If, for example, the theme is peace, the writer’s position might be Peace is worth any price. Perhaps, though, the writer’s position is Peace is inauthentic if it doesn’t accommodate truth.
A thematic position is what your story says about the human experience. It’s a belief about life, about an aspect of life that is universal to humanity. It’s succinct, straightforward, and makes an unqualified assertion that says something is like this.
By unqualified, I mean that a thematic position asserts that something is ALWAYS like this. As an absolute statement demonstrated in a work of fiction, it provides a layer of subtext beneath your story. If you weigh in with an opinion that says SOMETIMES this happens, you’re alluding to the plot of one story rather than illuminating through your plot a truth about the human story. As the substance of literary theme, a sometimes statement will unravel and muddy your story.
Position is a moral conclusion. The writer asks, Does the theme enhance or hinder human welfare and the ability to thrive? He then answers the question in his position. Bitterness is corrosive. Forgiveness is healing. Rules protect society from chaos. This does that.
Examples of Theme with Corresponding Positions
Tradition is vital to cultural identity and longevity.
Tradition has value, so long as it doesn’t compromise personal freedom.
Coming of age
Coming of age is arduous, but confidence in self and future enables one to find his way.
The confidence and support of those who have made the journey helps one to realize his potential.
Justice is subject to privilege.
Vengeance ensures justice.
Beliefs are one’s shelter in the storm.
Beliefs are fallible and have consequences.
Fear of weakness leads to cruelty and is ultimately self-destructive.
Awareness of weakness promotes compassion and interdependence.
Growing up an outcast
Growing up as an outcast of society leads one to reject the principles to which society upholds.
Growing up as an outcast creates strong and unconventional leaders destined to challenge the society that shun them.
ESTABLISHING YOUR THEMATIC POSITION
It’s understandable to feel daunted by the prospects of achieving depth through layering and motifs and whatnot. Working with theme, though, is easier than it appears. We’ll delve into practical applications when we return to plot, but let’s look at basic how-to’s.
As I said, your story idea and hero will suggest your thematic position. Your thematic position, then, will direct the development of your story idea, hero, and characters.
Back to Good Will Hunting. The writers’ thematic position: Only when you are able to love yourself will you find the courage to open yourself to receive and love others. How is this worked into the story? Nowhere in the script do Damon and Affleck spell it out. They demonstrate thematic position, primarily through a protagonist who is invulnerable to others because he is unable to love himself. The theme is in Will’s DNA and therefore shows itself in everything Will says and does.
Awareness of the macro and micro levels of theme can provide one more tool for thinking about what you should write, and how.
Theme is a coordinate by which to navigate your story. Use it as such. Steer events and conflicts in a manner that move your plot forward while also reflecting your thematic position. Think about character traits that draw from your theme and foil the effort to achieve the story goal. Think about emotional reactions that portray the effects of theme. Throughout story development, see your plot through the filter of thematic position.
What’s Your Point?
Thematic position, though never overtly touted, is the point you’re attempting to convey in your story. What kind of actions might bring the issue to light? Before you answer, it’s beneficial to state your thematic position in various ways, including sub-positions that express your point in part. These statements will inspire thematic events. Additionally, you’ll find the statements valuable throughout the writing of your novel.
If your theme is greed and your thematic position is Greed values possessions over people and isolates the greedy, you might restate your position and support it in the following manner:
- Greed values possessions over people and isolates the greedy.
- Greed communicates indifference toward others.
- Greed promotes jealousy and builds walls.
- Greed conflicts with friendship.
- Greed abandons people to carry the full weight of their burdens.
- Greed has consequences for those in need.
- Greed has consequences for those unwilling to give to those in need.
- Greed creates animosity and hostilities.
In writing sub-positions, make sure your statements support or fall under the heading of your primary position. The idea is to open up your thematic position, which is different from opening up your general theme. For instance, greed, by virtue of hording, might lead to shoddy housekeeping. Unless you tie shoddy housekeeping to isolation, though, it’s irrelevant. The object isn’t to expand on your theme but to expand on your succinct, straightforward, and unqualified assertion of belief pertaining to your theme.
From your list, the next step is to conceive of concrete actions, dialogue, and incidents that can illustrate these points. This might seem premature in the germination stage of your novel—there’s no guarantee that your investment will find a place in it. The exercise, though, will align theme and plot and begin to flesh out your story. It will also give you the assurance that you’ve tested your thematic position. Be willing to take preliminary steps, as no creative effort goes to waste.
Dramatic events from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol give a sense of the things you want to create to show your point.Scrooge denies an extension on a loan. That’s a specific theme-driven action. He refuses to give Cratchit a piece of coal. Theme-driven action. He declines to make a donation to the poor. Theme-driven action. All of these behaviors are shown to isolate him. All of these illustrate Dickens’ point: Greed denies blessing to both those in need and those who might have given.
Every Point Has a Counterpoint
Fiction is a rendering of reality. To mirror reality, characters must be three-dimensional versus flat, neither entirely good nor entirely bad nor entirely consistent and predictable. The same approach is necessary in your treatment of theme. You want to create a realistic depiction of how your thematic position plays out. You want to show it from multiple angles, from a positive standpoint as well as a negative standpoint.
Thematic position, as an assertion of belief that says this is like that, makes a positive or negative statement. Greed values possessions over people and isolates the greedy is a negative statement. It’s saying that greed is bad—harmful, hurtful. The counterpoint of thematic position recrafts the assertion of belief in opposite form—from a negative statement to a positive statement or from a positive statement to a negative statement. Counterpoint retains meaning as expressed in thematic position. It doesn’t contradict or oppose thematic position, as in, Greed builds community and here’s how. It’s opposite only in its negative or positive value. The counterpoint of the theme greed is generosity. The counterpoint of the thematic position (or point) that greed values possessions over people and isolates the greedy is: Generosity values people over possessions and prevents isolation. The two expressions, while opposite, affirm the same truth or belief.
Love conquers all, as a thematic position, is a positive statement. It says that love is omnipotent and wins over hateful forces. Rewritten as a negative statement, or counterpoint, might look like: Evil prevails in the absence of love, which puts emphasis on rampant evil and all it entails.
Once you’ve crafted the counterpoint of your thematic position, do the same as you did for your thematic position and list restatements and sub-counterpoints, again, written as concise and straightforward assertions of belief. Continuing with our example:
- Generosity values people over possessions and prevents isolation.
- Generosity builds relationships.
- Generosity frees people from pressure and demands on their time, so they can enjoy each other’s company.
- Generosity conquers envy and destructive arguments over possessions.
- Generosity values people over possessions.
- Generosity promotes peace and harmony.
- Generosity has consequence for those in need.
- Generosity has consequence for those who are generous to those in need.
- Generosity seeks mutual well-being.
- Generosity treats others the way one would want others to treat him.
Now list theme-driven actions—concrete behaviors—to demonstrate your theme’s counterpoint. The idea is to see your thematic position from both sides, to see point and counterpoint in action and to illustrate how they fare.
Returning to A Christmas Carol, Dickens illustrates the counterpoint of his thematic position when Fezziwig spends his money on a Christmas party for his employees. Another illustration is when Cratchit gives his time to Tiny Tim. Similarly, Scrooge’s nephew invites him to dinner. Throughout the story, illustrations of point and counterpoint layer over each other to make the emotional argument of Dickens’ thematic position.
It’s hostile trying to make somebody see something the way you see it, trying to impose your idea, your picture. It’s hostile to try to wrench around someone else’s mind that way. Quite often you want to tell somebody your dream, your nightmare. Well, nobody wants to hear about someone else’s dream, good or bad; nobody wants to walk around with it. The writer is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.
This type of reflection in plot is how you bring theme to life. As the illustrations layer over one another through the course of the story, the interplay of two forces driven by opposing mindsets—the clash of point and counterpoint, exhibits the thematic position. We see theme’s positive and negative manifestations and how they might engage and react. Counterpoint supports your thematic position by showing readers the opposite in action. It also supports your story by showing your hero the outcome of the insight he needs to learn to realize fullness in life.
Avoid the Point and Counterpoint Pitfall
Thematic position is a concept and, a concept cannot be felt. A concept must be shown. Only then can the concept evoke emotion and penetrate others.
Readers don’t open a novel with the desire to sit through a sermon. While at times your plot might require you to tie loose ends, theme has no agenda aside from offering glimpses of itself. Resist the urge to gather it up in a bright yellow bow and say, Here, dear readers, here is my theme. Finesse your illustrations of point and counterpoint so that they unfold organically and never awaken the reader to the fact that he or she is reading. Accredit your audience with the intelligence to read subtle strokes.
In a complicated and nuanced way, Mellville’s Moby Dick says something about the destructive powers of obsession that couldn’t be said in less than the 211,000 words. We don’t come away with a sassy blurb. We finish the yarn with an indelible sense of, Yes, that’s how it works, that’s the noose and the drop-away floor.
When the writer has a clear understanding of theme, it permeates story. The endless decisions involved with writing a novel become easier, as the writer will limit his options to those that enact theme—and simultaneously result in a powerful, cohesive, and universally identifiable narrative.
Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is the right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.
Every story needs a theme.