How Much Is That Theme
There in the Window?
By Lori L.
Whenever I talk about theme, I am always reminded of Justice
Stewart’s comment about defining hard-core pornography: "I know it
when I see it." This describes my feelings about theme. I had
individual conversations with six different authors and asked them
to define theme. We discussed the topic at some length, and none of
us could come up with an easy-to-understand definition, but we all
agreed that we could see it when was there, and we missed it when it
What is this slippery word that people use, but no one seems to
be able to define with confidence? It’s not like high school where
our teachers instructed us to come up with a "theme" and write a
paper composed of a topic sentence, three or four key points, and a
conclusion. No, theme in fiction is an entirely different creation.
Theme is the underlying idea that runs throughout the novel or
story. It can be seen and felt because of the author’s use of
metaphor, tone, narrative voice, characters, plot, setting, and
every other writing tool right down to allusions, allegory, irony,
imagery, and symbols that appear.
Theme is composed of the central issue(s) around which the entire
novel is structured. It's not just about the basic meaning of the
work, but about something more complex. What does the arrangement of
words—the construction of the piece, including specific details,
images, and ideas—do to tell us something deeper? Under that plot,
behind those characters, is there something profound being said
about the state of the world, a particular society, a community, a
culture? Margaret Atwood’s cautionary novel, The Handmaid’s Tale,
tells the story of a woman who no longer has control of her life
or her body. Her freedom and fate have been sacrificed to a
totalitarian society, and her world has become stilted,
authoritarian, and unpleasant for all. The theme? Inequality, sexual
degradation, and unchecked power can lead an entire society down a
road of pain and unhappiness. The story is powerful, not to mention
Theme is so tightly wound in and around fictional
elements—especially structure, narrative strategy, and plot—that you
can hardly extricate those elements from one another to examine them
individually. A simple definition of theme doesn’t explain well
enough, so we’ll have to come at the topic from a variety of angles
and hope to illuminate it that way. Author Rachel Simon says, "Theme
is what the story is saying — definitively or speculatively — about
humanity and the laws of the universe. Let's look at the difference
between idea and theme. Idea is more about the content of the story.
Theme is larger than that — more opinionated, more abstract, more
along the lines of contemplating or illuminating the great
principles of life." A major theme in a "heavy" literary work is an
idea about the world that the author returns to repeatedly. It
becomes one of the most important aspects of the work. This was
certainly true of the Atwood novel mentioned above.
In children’s stories, the theme is often trumpeted loudly at the
end so the kiddies can’t possibly miss it. In those simple
grade-school stories and in folktales like Aesop’s Fables, the theme
is literally announced: "The moral of the story is…" But in adult
literature, theme encompasses a great deal more than a simple moral.
In fact, the "morality" angle may very well be a shifting, moving
thing as the characters of the story learn and grow—or refuse to
learn and grow. How that occurs has to do with the author’s take on
Consider, for instance, the lesbian dimestore "pulp" novels of
the 1950s. Highly conflicted women expressed or agonized over their
desires for other women, then went through a variety of tawdry
experiences before most often coming to a very bad end. Or else they
discovered their lesbian "tendencies" were juvenile and eventually
found "true love" and fulfillment with a man.
Who read those books? Apparently women read the lion’s share.
Setting aside the fact that most, if not all, of them were written
by men, why would women read them? The theme was negative,
relegating women’s emotional relationships with one another to the
level of tragic, stupid, or inconsequential. The overall theme
gracelessly communicated that lesbianism was wrong, that lesbians
would never prosper without a man, and that only through conforming
to societal expectations could a woman be successful, admirable, and
truly content. Those novels were the only verification that "the
love that dare not speak its name" even existed, so women did
purchase and read the novels, probably causing further conflict and
Today those old novels read like cheap, unrealistic melodrama,
but in the 1950s, the themes they espoused were quite powerful and
were used by a culture attempting to keep women subordinate,
especially those who had found some measure of independence during
the war years of the 1940s.
This example is a good one in proving one other subtle point
about theme: the lack of certain themes in a culture’s
literature may be as telling as the themes that continually pop up.
Perhaps that is one reason it’s so tough to get one’s hands around
the topic; theme is wrapped up in a very complex web of attitudes,
assumptions, and beliefs, some of which may be inaccurate.
The greatest and most enduring literature (the work of
Shakespeare, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Charles Dickens, Jane
Austen, etc.) reflects large, abstract principles of life. On the
other end of the spectrum is fun-living, escapist writing that may
merely celebrate topics such as comedy or horror or adventure or
romance (the work of Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz, Wilbur Smith,
Danielle Steel among hundreds of others). The latter type of writing
certainly shows us thematic elements (prevailing over tough odds,
the unfairness of the world, individual v. a closed community,
etc.), but the difference in impact between, as an example, a
simple love story and Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea, is
undeniable. The first uses one character’s life to
particularize small themes of love and sexuality while the latter
uses the old man, the sea, and the big fish to extrapolate
over-arcing themes about people’s relationships to the world, to
loss, to death, and to other meaty issues.
Still, even lightweight "beach" reading requires thematic
underpinnings that are cohesive and integrated. Without that, a
story feels like it has no heart and soul.
Have you ever read a book, seen a movie, or watched a TV show
where the creator initially grabbed you—and then halfway through, it
all went downhill and you ended up hating the story? Perhaps it
began as a coming-of-age story, then inexplicably switched to a
murder mystery or a horror story. If those disparate story lines
don’t have a unified theme, the viewer/reader ends up feeling
cheated and perhaps even confused. An example where the filmmaker
succeeds admirably with this sort of shift is the film "Stand By Me"
(taken from Stephen King’s novella, originally titled "The Body").
The coming-of-age story, which is set in a version of a Hero’s
Journey, is masterfully coupled with a deeper theme about the
unfairness of the world. The subtle theme—that one does not have to
be an adult, or even be very old at all, to feel deeply—pervades the
piece. Powerful forces can be setting in motion in childhood that
carry over into adulthood. When the boys in the story finally get a
glimpse of the dead boy’s body, it serves as a turning point in
their lives. Ever after they are changed.
Another film that illuminates this point is "Field of Dreams."
The vast majority of men with whom I’ve discussed the movie—though
often unwilling or unable to elaborate why—have told me they felt
that movie deeply, even to the point of being moved to tears.
What they seem to be responding to is the theme: the painful
separation from their fathers that many boys experience around the
time of puberty and the intense desire to reconnect with the father
in a world where emotions like sadness, need, and grief are soundly
discouraged in men and boys. Generations of American men have
grappled with this anguish, and "Field of Dreams," with its mythic
and archetypal story of love and baseball, growth and absence
communicates that in ways that touched millions of men—and women,
If a story fails to contain that sort of consistency of theme,
and particularly if it doesn’t adhere to formulaic expectations of
the genre, the reader’s experience can be seriously compromised.
Often we hear people say that when they got to such-and-such a place
in the story, they tossed the book aside because it was unrealistic
or too far-fetched or just didn’t feel "true." Even though some are
able to suspend disbelief and forge through to the end,
dissatisfaction is likely to remain. When asked for details, they
may say, "It was well-written, but I just couldn’t get into it."
Pressed further, they may not be able to explain exactly why except
to say, "It didn’t speak to me. I just didn’t like it." When this
happens, chances are that the reader didn’t like the theme—or else
the theme was a jumbled mess.
People read stories and novels for entertainment, for knowledge,
and also to affirm their "take" on the world. You won’t find a lot
of men reading the current crop of "Chick-Lit" since most men find
that such novels don’t reflect their world. Conversely, few women
read war-based techno-thrillers. The vast majority of straight
people do not read gay and lesbian fiction. As disappointing as that
is, most people tend to stick to what they feel comfortable with and
don’t read stories that challenge their attitudes and beliefs.
So when a reader picks up a book, it is with certain
expectations. Many readers love mysteries because through the
sleuth’s actions, order is restored to a debauched world. If you
were to read a book where the sleuth was murdered in the end by the
despicable villains and those wrongdoers got away with it, you would
feel cheated. At the same time, many veteran writers in the literary
realm have built careers on subverting the expectations and themes
of commonly prized types of novels. Virginia Woolf, Joyce Carol
Oates, Don DeLillo, and Roland Barthes come to mind.
In their insightful book, Technique in Fiction, Macauley
and Lanning write: "But the all-important thing about the first
stage of any fiction is that the author makes certain promises
there. A successful novel will bear out those promises. The author
should be in full command of his conception, not drifting hopefully
toward it. He may promise wit and precision in the analysis of human
relations (as Margaret Drabble does at the start of The Ice Age),
a striking view of desolation (as does Tim O’Brien with his list
of the dead and how they were killed in Going After Cacciato),
a surreal vision of life (as Franz Kafka does at the beginning
of The Trial), or whatever other tenor the novel will have.
In a certain sense, every beginning is (or should be) a symbol. On
the strength of what the symbol promises, the reader commits himself
to the story."
So how does a writer determine theme? ("How much is that theme
there in the window?") How do you know whether you actually
have one that is consistent? In a perfect world, we would sit down
to write and know we are writing about a particular theme: the
changes a character goes through from Innocence to
Knowledge/Adulthood, for instance; or themes of overcoming great
obstacles in the face of mighty opposition from the culture. But
this isn't usually the way it works. Though we may feel a burning
desire to write, and we have ideas and issues and questions that we
pour into our texts, most of the time we’ve got no clue what the
theme of our work is at the outset. It’s important to note that if
we try to ramrod a theme into the text at the get-go, we come off as
preachy or didactic.
If you decide to explore a particular theme with an open
mind, surprising—perhaps even amazing—results often come of it. If,
on the other hand, you decide on your theme ahead of time and are
intent on bending the characters and story to fit that specific
theme, your story will most likely come off as flat and wooden,
perhaps even boring.
Writers and teachers usually have no idea what themes will
emerge, and because the topic is so difficult, theme is an element
of fiction not usually addressed. But if you think of theme as a
steady accumulation of detail, growing organically within the text
as you write, then it can readily be seen in the pattern of events,
narrative, point of view, and character evolution. By writing about
a specific place, a specific plot, specific characters and their
specific dilemmas, an author explores a problem or set of problems
and arrives at a resolution of some sort. Whether the writer plans
it or not, the story will display attitudes, ideas, and a worldview
along with a sense of morality (or amorality). That display might be
exactly how the writer sees the world, or it could be an exploration
of the alternative: what if things were this way instead of how they
When I begin a new novel, I usually don’t know—or even think
about—what the theme is. I start with a premise, a few characters, a
plot, and I work from there. The overall theme and any number of
subordinate themes that support the larger theme seem to grow
naturally in the writing and rewriting as I fumble along without
fully understanding it, perhaps only intuitively getting it. Most
writers I’ve talked with have this same experience.
In her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
(which I highly recommend), Janet Burroway says that in the
moment you actually realize what your theme is, you have a "minor
convulsion of understanding."
I like that image—a convulsion of understanding. This
happened to me in writing my third book, Under The Gun. I
suddenly realized, near the end, that one of the larger themes I was
exploring had to do with the struggle for autonomy, separateness,
and "rugged individualism" in the face of the need for the
community, love, and support of other people. As I wrote the novel,
I came to understand something I’d never realized before: that I
believe people do not grow and change alone, in a vacuum. It is with
and through other people that love and meaning and depth of caring
have the most impact. My character, Dez Reilly, had to learn that.
She had to step out from behind her protective shield (in more ways
than one) and take chances. Looking back at my previous two books, I
realized that the same theme permeated both of them. Eureka! A
convulsion of understanding. All this time I was writing about a
specific theme, and I wasn’t even aware of it until after the fact.
(It may be interesting to note that the next book I wrote,
Different Dress, had an entirely different theme!)
There can be more than one theme in a book. In fact, each
character of import and every plot line may have multiple minor
themes attached. Still, in a novel, the overall theme needs to be
consistent—or else the reader will feel like your work is
disconnected, choppy, or even bizarre, as though more than one
writer were creating it. It really doesn’t matter when you
identify the themes you are employing, so long as once you do, you
attempt to strengthen, unify, and enhance that aspect of the
writing. Do the events and characters work against the theme? Is the
tone and language used supportive of your theme? Are the images, the
narrative details, the allusions consistent? Some writers have an
innate understanding of theme and never consider the topic on a
conscious level at all. Those are the lucky writers who never mix
metaphors and seem to be attuned to the feeling of a piece.
Not all of us are that aware.
Perhaps the goal, then, is not to "handle" theme at all, but to
identify it (perhaps even after the fact), and ensure that all the
parts of your creation support it. The more firmly you, the author,
understand your own ideas, prejudices, and beliefs, the more clearly
and capably you will be able to handle theme and turn your novel
into a cohesive narrative that "feels" true and complete and solid.
Studying the structure and content of all sorts of writing, both
commercial and literary, and discussing matters of theme with other
writers are good ways to start noticing and identifying theme.
Theme is a critical part of any writer’s work, but there is a
surprising dearth of clear writing about it. Many writers touch on
the topic within larger works about craft and technique, but I
haven’t been able to find an entire book devoted solely to theme.
Even Ronald Tobias’s book, Theme and Strategy, isn’t so much
about theme as about plot and narrative strategies. The most
valuable resources I’ve found with useful discussions of theme
* Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
by Janet Burroway
* Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking your
Fiction to the Next Level
by Donald Maass
* How to Write a DAMN Good Novel
By James N. Frey (he uses the term Premise,
rather than Theme)
L. Lake, 2004
From her untitled book about
novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the
express permission of the author. If you have questions, comments,
or divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at
Lori@LoriLLake.com. Lori welcomes questions and
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