The Power of THEME

I'm happy to welcome back Dr. John Yeoman of Writer's Village, a writing community dedicated to helping writers succeed. You might remember his last post, Want To Write A Bestseller? Change Your Mind! that focused on how a writer can create fresh description through altering our perspective.

Today he's covering a difficult area for many of us--the importance of THEME to create richness and meaning in our stories. John always offers thoughtful advice, so please, read on!

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Strong stories have great themes. They may also have great plots but, for a story to endure, theme is everything. Plot is what happens. Theme is the why.

A theme is the meaning of a story. As humans, we lust for meaning, for pattern in all things, including fiction.

How do we power our stories with a great theme?

A story with a theme that’s too upfront is a manifesto. (Think of the polemics of Ayn Rand.) Far more readable is the story where a theme, grounded in some primal human drive, works its way to the surface slowly through incident, character and behavior.

For example, imagine a story where a man climbs a mountain, alone and in bad weather, and has to be rescued by a helicopter. Is that a story? No, it’s a news report.

But suppose he goes on that foolhardy climb to prove to himself - and his girl - that he is not a coward? And he succeeds. The world scorns him as an idiot but his girl knows better.

Now the tale has meaning. Its theme might be: ‘A man can only find his life when he is prepared to lose it.’ Well told, that might be a great story.

Here are two ways to endow your story with a strong theme:

1. You’ve written a story already...

Craft a plot in the usual way, replete with Obstacles, Setbacks, Conflicts and Twists. Then look for the theme that’s already there.

Suppose you write a horror story about a young couple who honeymoon on a remote island. The locals warn them it’s haunted. To placate the ghosts, they must follow some bizarre ritual. They scoff. Weeks later, their bodies are discovered - their faces contorted with horror.

Is that a story? No. It’s banal. But suppose the couple are pictured as scientists, worshipers of technology. Now we have a theme: ‘Only fools laugh at ancestral wisdom.’

If you can’t sum it up in a proverb, you don’t have a theme.

In summary: write a story that works. Then stand back from it and ask: ‘what does this story mean?’ And strengthen the latent theme or axiom that’s already there.

2. You have a theme but no story...

Imagine that you burn with a secret vision, an affiliation to some great cause - or just a deep sense of anger. It’s tempting to write a novel where your hero(ine) puts the world to rights. Or, at least, sets off the fire alarms.

Don’t do it. Your story won’t even get published.

One solution is to tell your story from the viewpoint of someone who represents the polar opposite of your own opinions. Gain your reader’s sympathy, howsoever unlikely, for that person. Then show them changing their views under the pressure of events.

As their mind changes, so will that of the reader.

Here’s a provocative example.

Imagine you’re on a personal crusade to reveal the villainy of Google. You just know that Google plans to take over the world.

Do you show Google’s chief programmer, Joe, beaming like Fu Manchu as he plots world domination? No. These are nice guys and gals. They have open access offices with climbing walls!

Instead, picture Joe as a decent fellow, brilliant but naive. He has always scoffed at calls for Google to regulate itself. Then he bumps into an old girl friend whose life has been ruined by a criminal who stalked her using Google apps.

Hm... he sees the point of self-regulation. He commends it to the Google board. However, opposing him is another top executive, Sam. He does plan world domination. He sets out to suppress Joe...

At the end, Joe is in hiding - pursued by Sam’s assassins. Joe is developing a super-virus that will destroy Google. But does he have the right to do it? The novel closes on that moral question.

And readers will draw their own conclusions.

You don’t have to state: ‘Google is evil’. It isn’t. But readers will get the scary message. If the book sells well and is widely discussed, so will legislators. Mission accomplished.

What is the story’s theme? Perhaps ‘for evil to triumph, it requires only that good men do nothing’? Of course, if you love Google you might detect a different theme: ‘You can’t suppress a great idea when its time has come’.

To summarize, for a story to be enduringly successful, it must embody a theme of timeless appeal.

1. If you write your story first, and it works... deepen it by bringing out the latent theme that’s already there.

2. If you find your theme first... examine it from a multiplicity of points of view and coax the reader to draw their own conclusions.
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Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at:
http://www.writers-village.org/program

A road map to finding your Theme? How much do you love this post? Please check out John's blog for more nuggets of wisdom, and if you like, come visit me at Jami Gold's blog as I tackle Characters Who Lie and their unique body language TELLS.

17 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I've found that over time, I'm drawn and remember and enjoy more, the ones that have woven theme into their stories but paired with that usually means a spark of literary writing, which I enjoy.

Becca Puglisi said...

When it comes to theme, I have to write the story first, then go back and find the theme after. It's amazing to me how this never fails to work. It's like some subconscious thing that happens, where the theme is there even if you don't recognize it, and it comes out in the writing.

Thanks again, John!

Miranda said...

And I thought I knew enough about themes! This is incredible insight!

Thanks John.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a brilliant post. I hated theme in high school because I never got it right. When I write stories, I come up with theme first, though it usually changes slightly as I write the book.

Kelly Polark said...

Excellent post. Thank you, John and Angela. Great examples! I do feel that if a story has a theme, you end up thinking about it long after...

Angela Ackerman said...

My process is similar to Becca's...I find that after the story is written and I begin to revise, that's when I start picking up on a natural theme and can work to bring it out more. An excellent post, John--thank you so much for your visit! :)

Angela

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

What a wonderful post! Thank you. I couldn't agree more with the idea of enhancing the theme that springs naturally from your work. Books containing not-so-hidden agendas that hit you over the head with the author's ham-handed theme, are total turn-offs.

Matthew MacNish said...

I think I have theme pretty well nailed in one MS. In another, not so much. LOL. I guess the point is whether the reader agrees.

Anyway, another awesome muser post, especially that Google example. Thanks, John!

Anonymous said...

I've read posts by Dr. Yeoman before and he's always worth stoppiing for. We are hardwired for story, and I think we're hardwired for theme as well. It's as if privately we search for theme in our own lives therefore need to see it mirrored in our fiction.
Yvette Carol

Jack Dowden said...

I too find that my themes come out after I've written the story. Generally, I'll get a cool idea in my head and I'll spend a week writing it or so.
Afterwards, I'll edit it and read it more closely. Then I'll say, "Oh... it's about faith versus reason."
I don't generally like to start with a theme in itself. Sometimes I feel like it can get in the way of the story. As in, you're so adamant about fitting the theme into the story, that you sacrifice certain elements of what would have made it a good story to begin with.

The Golden Eagle said...

I'm not good with bringing out themes, so this was a very helpful post. Bookmarking for future reference!

Margaret Alexander said...

Such an epic post, thank you for this! Definitely agreed with everything you said. In fact, I want to hug you, but the internet won't let me.

Natalie Aguirre said...

Great post. I loved the suggestions on how to weave in the theme and reading in the comments how everyone does it. I've only written one complete manuscript and I knew that theme from the start. We'll see about future projects.

Traci Kenworth said...

This is something I'll have to think on as I'm drawing to a close on my current first draft. I haven't given much thought to theme. I've thought of it as one of those mysterious things that "just happen." Now that I know that's not the case, I'll have to be more diligent and figure things out regarding it. Thanks for the help!!

John Yeoman said...

Thanks, Margaret. I consider myself hugged. I would gladly hug you back, except that my wife wouldn't let me. Does that suggest a story theme? :)

Marcia said...

"If you can't sum it up in a proverb, you don't have a theme."

Exactly! A lot of people seem to think themes are one word: Love, Loss, Redemption, Forgiveness, and so forth. But those are subjects. Theme is what the book says ABOUT the subject.

Laura Stephenson said...

CS Lewis said he always wrote a story and the moral flowed out without effort. Most people aren't as intelligent or proficient at writing as he was, so this is really helpful advice on how to get both elements in when it doesn't come naturally.

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