Friday, January 3, 2014

Theme: What It Is And Why Your Story Needs One



Today I'd like to talk about theme, what it is and why it's important.

Theme


Before I say anything about theme, though, I'd like to direct you to a marvelous article about theme by Chuck Wendig, although, fair warning, Chuck loves making creative use of adult words and ... er ... images (some of which it may take a while to forget--and not in a good way). You've been warned! Here's the link: 25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we talk about what theme is and why we should care about it, lets look at a couple of examples of well-known themes.

J.R.R. Tolkien & The Lord of the Rings


Here's what J.R.R. Tolkien had to say about the theme of his Lord of the Rings trilogy:
"But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!" (Letter 203, 1957)

"It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the 'escapes': serial longevity, and hoarding memory." (Letter 211, 1958)
Those quotations were from the Wikipedia article, Themes of Lord of the Rings.

What is stronger than the fear of death? Love and friendship

J.K. Rowling & Harry Potter


J.K. Rowling in a 2006 interview with The Telegraph, "There Would Be So Much To Tell Her ..."
"Death is the key to understanding J K Rowling. Her greatest fear - and she is completely unhesitant about this - is of someone she loves dying. 'My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry's parents. There is Voldemort's obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic.

"'I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We're all frightened of it.'"
Here, again, we see death as the theme. How the fear of death can give rise to all the evils of the world. 

I would suggest that the theme for many of J.K. Rowling's books can be summed up as: "Love conquers death."

Although J.K. Rowling's theme was inspired by her mother's passing--she had started writing the first of the novels as, unknown to her, her mother lay dying--it is interesting how similar it is to that of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

(This is slightly off-topic but I'll mention it since we're discussing death in Tolkien's novels and death as a theme. 

In Tolkien's universe elves lived in the past. In one of his many letters Tolkien wrote that the elves' memories were more real to them than their existence, their actions, in the present. Contrast this with humans. For humans, memories (usually) are like dreams, dimly remembered.

Where elves lived in the past, humans lived in the future. Some humans, fully apprised of the inevitability of death, were obsessed with averting it. It was this conflict--between the mortal and the immortal (between men and the elves, between the mortal Frodo and the immortal Sauron)--that fueled the events of the The Lord of the Rings

Hobbits, on the other hand, lived in the now. They knew how to enjoy a meal and delight in the company of friends. One could argue that they had the greatest of all gifts; greater even than immortality or great riches: they possessed the ability to be happy--or at least content.)

Okay, back to theme!

Theme: What Is It And Why Should I Care?


What is "theme"?


Put simply, theme is whatever it is that gives a story purpose.

A story as a whole should demonstrate the truth of a single statement. That statement is the story's thesis. Although we don't have to call such a statement a thesis. We could talk, instead, about a story's premise.

Lajos Egri held that the essence of any dramatic story is "character through conflict leading to a conclusion". The theme, or premise, of a story is what guides the characters through the story toward the conclusion. The premise puts bounds on the story, limiting it, structuring it.

Frey writes, "When you formulate your premise, remember the three C's: character, conflict, and conclusion. A dramatic story is the transformation of character thorugh crisis; the premise is a succinct statement of that transformation."

So here's what we have:
i. A character in crisis.
ii. A goal plus opposition to attaining that goal (often supplied by the antagonistic force) equels conflict.
iii. The conclusions, or resolution, of the crisis in a satisfying manner. How does the hero resolve the crisis? Does he achieve what he/she set out to? Did it resolve the crisis?
I think, explained this way, we can see the theme as an abstract articulation of the structure of the story; a generalization of the plot.

For instance, in "The Reichenbach Fall" (season 2, episode 3 of Sherlock) [spoiler warning] we see that even though Sherlock Holmes has the emotional intelligence of a dust mite, he loves his friends. He would give up his life if it meant saving theirs.

There's an expression I remember from childhood--it comes from John 15:3--"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends". So, perhaps, we could state the theme of the episode as, "Love sacrifices all," or, "Love would sacrifice all".
i. A character in crisis. Sherlock was in crisis because (apparently) he was faced with a choice: live and take revenge on Moriarty OR accept defeat, die, but save his friends.

ii. Sherlock has a goal: Moriarty wants to make London his plaything. Sherlock wants to stop him. Moriarty resists by destroying Sherlock's reputation.

iii. The matter is (or seems to be) concluded when Sherlock defeats Moriarty, fakes his death and goes into hiding.
In this way the plot can be seen as articulating the theme.

Why you should care: Your theme helps determine what material should be included, as well as excluded, from the story.


One of the advantages of knowning your story's thesis (not all stories have them, but nearly all dramatic stories do) is that it will help you figure out what should be included. It will help you structure your novel.

W.T. Price in "The Analysis of Play Construction and Dramatic Principle" claims that the underlying, unifying,  principle of a work is "the brief, logical statement or syllogism of that which has to be demonstrated by the complete action of the play."

The theme is the root idea of a story; the theme articulates its driving force.

In other words, a story is the proof of the premise given by the theme. If your premise is love conquers all then you have to make sure that, within the pages of your novel, love does indeed conquer all.

This means that if a part of your story doesn't go toward proving the premise, scrutinize it. Perhaps it needs to go. Ask yourself: if this scene were not in the novel would it be weakened? Would there be any difference? If the answer to either of those questions is "no" then I'd advise you to grit your teeth and toss it.

Okay, that's it! Often talk of theme is rather nebulous. I've tried to pin down what theme is and why it is important to writers, why having a theme can make writing simpler. And stronger.

Good writing!

Photo credit: "My hangover coffee" by 55Laney69 under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

6 comments:

  1. Karen, I wanted to let you know how much I enjoy reading your informative posts. You have a gift for helping me understand different aspects of the writing craft without excess wordiness or academic fluff. You love story and craft and it shows in your posts. Much success to you in 2014--spiritually, financially, socially, professionally--you get the picture! Blessings!

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    1. Thanks for your very kind words Charmaine. It is comments like yours that keep me blogging. :-)

      And, same to you! May 2014 be your best year yet!

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  2. Hi Karen. I rarely comment, but I love your blogs. Since I used this post to springboard one of my rants, I just thought I would let you know I mentioned you. Okay, I used you. But only because I ... well, only because your post made me want to write my own rant. *smile*

    I didn't disagree with anything you wrote. Agree with it, actually. I've just seen so many new writers fretting the rules...I know I did.

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    1. It's always nice to receive a comment from you! And thank you for the kind words as well as the heads-up. (Sorry for the late reply.)

      Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote:

      "Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted."

      That's my goal.

      If someone can achieve that goal by going on a tangent, by all means!

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  3. Ditto, Karen. I always get a thing or two from your posts. Keep 'em coming!

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Because of the number of bots leaving spam I had to prevent anonymous posting. My apologies to anyone this inconveniences, I wish I didn't have to do it. I do appreciate each and every comment.