If you ask someone “What is The Lord of the Rings about?” and their answer could just as easily apply to The Magnificent Seven (that is, a band of unlikely heroes comes together to save some weaker realm) what they are talking about is concept.
If their answer has to do with destroying a ring, and hobbits and wizards and elves and dwarves, they are talking about plot or character.
If their answer has to do with good versus evil and how even the smallest act of good control over evil they are talking about theme.
Theme is what our story means in the big picture of life. It is, perhaps, the lesson we hope readers will take away. It is how life is explained by our story — or how our story is explained by life.
Theme is a Continuum
Seinfeld was a show about nothing. If you can find a lesson about the meaning of life in Seinfeld you might win a prize somewhere.
It’s pretty clear what L. Ron Hubbard thinks his books are about thematically. (Brooks uses both of those examples in Story Engineering.)
Your story will fall between. It’s almost impossible to write something worth reading or watching without imbuing theme, unless you’re very careful to do it intentionally. Better to know what the theme is than to let it happen because your unconscious is toying with you.
Theme is Not First
Know your theme, yes, but don’t start there. If you set out to write about loyalty, you’ll hammer it too hard. Think back to the last book you read or movie you watched where the phrase “heavy-handed” came to mind about how they delivered their message about world peace, equality of the sexes, or the value of chocolate.
They had a message, chose a theme, and pretended to lay a story over the top. It works just as well as pouring chocolate over whatever happens to be in the pan, whether crisp rice or onion rings, and calling it dessert. You’ll get the chocolate all right, but you may or may not like it.
If, on the other hand, you finish your finely-crafted first draft and realize that the idea of loyalty keeps cropping up, even plays a role in the resolution, there’s a theme you can emphasize.
See, we’re not just letting the unconscious do all the work and leaving it alone. Find the theme your unconscious served up, and then go back and punch it up, dial it in, foreshadow and lean and symbolize so that an astute reader will hear your theme without seeing circles and arrows and a paragraph explaining what it was.
Show, Don’t Tell
Fiction can be a soapbox. That’s fine with me. But as a professional persuader (I’ve done marketing as part of my business for eleventyleven years) I know that slapping people in the face with an idea is supremely ineffective, but leading them down the path to the point they think it was their idea (done ethically, of course) is just peachy.
Sometimes there’s a physical manifestation of your theme. In my latest book, the protagonist Phil Brennan is a loner. Doesn’t want to be, but he is. He’s going to spend the rest of his imaginary life looking for someone to love and love him back. I don’t see it happening, though he may fool me.
I noticed, reading the first draft of the book, that doors showed up everywhere. Doors doors doors I kept talking about doors.
So here’s this book where the them is something about looking for acceptance (you can see how tightly I’ve nailed down this “theme” thing) and doors keep opening, or being locked, and whatnot.
Yes, I went back and made sure every door was doing something in line with the scene. Blocking him when he needed blocking, opening to either move him forward lull the poor guy into a false sense of security.
My current work in progress turned out to be about loyalty. I wrote it on the heels of a life event which made that the most important characteristic in my mind at the time and it leaked into the book.
It’s a book with lots of locks, keys, security devices of all kinds. You can bet that’s going to be carefully sculpted into a physical manifestation of the theme.
Don’t Stress Over Theme
A children’s book is likely to have an obvious overt theme. That’s how we talk to kids.
A mystery, historical fiction, or romance novel? Not necessarily. It may just feel like a good story.
Theme is good, just as finding the perfect seasoning for a meal is good. If you settle for just salt and pepper, it might be enough for today.
If you realize you’re holding smoked Hungarian paprika, make the most of it.
As with the other posts in this series, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Buy and read Story Engineering and follow Larry’s posts at storyfix and you’ll get the bigger picture.