Friday, July 25, 2014

What's Your Story About? Exploring Theme in Fiction

That’s the question we get any time we tell someone we’re writing a (insert your form here – story, novella, book, space opera…) And that’s the question we’re told to have a ready answer to, just in case we bump into our dream agent in line for a McMuffin on the way to work, or in the elevator at a writing conference. It’s the log line, the pitch, the meat of the matter. But what is this critical nugget really? If the piece we’re writing has a shot at capturing the hearts and minds of an audience, it’s the theme.

When someone asks what your story is about, how do you answer? Do you give a brief summary of the action?

For example, “my story is about this poor girl who is harassed by her evil stepsisters until her fairy godmother comes and turns her into a princess so she can go to the ball and meet her prince and live happily ever after.”

That is, after all, what Cinderella is about. Isn’t it? Maybe not.

Try this: “my story is about the belief that by putting goodness and love out into the world, goodness and love will be returned to us. It’s an exploration of the golden rule, set in the world of princes and fairy godmothers.”

Which one do you want to read?

The first tells us what the story is about in terms of action. The second, though, tells us what the theme of the story is.

The Importance of Theme

Let’s look at the idea of theme for a moment. Have you ever finished a book and put it down, asking yourself what the point was? Maybe there was great action, and a rollicking plot, but at the end you’re left feeling like it was hollow somehow. That, writers, is the absence of theme.

All stories should have a theme – from literary (where sometimes the themes seem to take over all action and bring the plot a standstill) to genre (where occasionally theme suffers for the sake of the plot.) It was easy to identify a theme in fables or parables – the theme was the moral or teaching. But in fiction, we don’t always seek to teach.

Think about it this way – the theme of your work is the concept that links the story to the audience. It’s what makes the story universal. It’s what elevates it from a good story to a story that will keep readers thinking long after they’ve put the book down.

As I’ve written more, I’ve learned to build theme into my work somewhat organically. I’ve even discovered that I have themes where I didn’t intentionally place them. But the best work, I think, develops when a writer has a theme in mind as they craft the story, allowing it to work in and out of the words, wrapping itself intricately through the scenes and chapters and adding an extra layer of complexity to the story.

How do you approach theme? Do you build it in intentionally, or have you discovered your themes after the fact? Can you think of any books you’ve read recently that have done a nice job with building on a theme?


JeffO said...

Theme is a little bit of a mixed bag for me. I do not start out with a theme, I start out with some idea, which may be situation, full-blown plot idea, or character. As I start to write and think on the story, the theme tends to come to me and I work on working it in. However, some themes appear on their own, without conscious decision-making on my part.

Delancey Stewart said...

I find the same thing, Jeff. My newest project is the only one where I've found myself very aware of the theme as I build the story. So I think it works differently for me each time!

Anonymous said...

I just figured out my theme/s thanks to you!! I knew it was about relationships but not how deep it went!!

Delancey Stewart said...

That's awesome! Glad I could help! Woot!