Theme is like a truffle – it has to be there, just under the surface, but one must snort through much mud to unearth it. A most unpleasant process I’ve been stuck in for the last few months. So why do I keep at it? Won’t the theme of my book just magically appear once it’s written? Won’t a reviewer or professor or reader interpret the theme for me? Why do writers need to know the theme of their novel?
Simple answer: to make the book the best it can be.
Because if you’re not shooting for that, why are you reading a blog about writing craft? Right? Okay. Let’s get to work…
First, some definitions…
a) Theme is what the story is about.
b) Theme is the moral of the story.
c) Theme is the lesson learned.
d) Theme is the story’s ultimate meaning.
e) Theme is a cat in a shark costume riding a rumba.
Which answer is correct? Though you may be tempted to pick “e” (I know I want to), you’d be wrong. However, a, b, c and d are all decent definitions of theme.
And that’s why theme is so hard: our notions of it are vague. People say, “My novel is about unconditional love!” Or death, or forgiveness, or second chances. All broad ideas claiming to be theme. But a theme must be more than that to writers, because vague notions do not help us write powerful, meaningful or impactful stories. We need to get more specific, and it doesn’t get any more specific than what some refer to as “The Screenwriter’s Bible”…
STORY by Robert McKee is a beast of a book, all 455 picture-less pages of it. It’s very detailed, but that’s exactly what we need to figure out an ambiguous notion like theme. McKee writes, “A true theme is not a word, but a sentence… describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.”
Yep, CHANGE. If you’ve been following my blog, I talk about this a lot, especially in How To Story Edit Using The Basic Beats where I mention change every other sentence. If you’re still not sure why change is so important, read this post where I compare a novel to a hamburger. Seriously, it makes sense. Read it. I’ll wait.
So a complete theme needs change. And that change happens to something humans/readers/heroes inherently value, like love, life, justice, truth, hope, equality, etc. And that value is changed because something caused it to change. Like this…
THEME = VALUE changed by CAUSE
This is what I call “Theme” with a capital “T”. McKee calls it “The Controlling Idea.” Others say “Thematic Statement.” Some label it “Central Theme” because they have many themes but know that one theme must rise above the rest and unify the whole story.
How To Find Your Theme
1) Figure out the VALUE. The value is, broadly, what’s at stake. In love stories, the value is obviously “love.” In crime novels, the value is usually “justice.” Often people equate value with theme. They say, “My novel is about justice!” but that’s not a complete Theme. They only have part of the equation.
2) Determine how that value will CHANGE. Most stories begin negative (injustice) and end positive (justice is served). If the novel is a tragedy, it will start positive and end negative.
3) Find the CAUSE. Why does justice prevail? This is the hard part. Hint: the answer lies within the protagonist. After all, the protagonist drives the story. I’ll give you two examples:
i) Justice triumphs because the protagonist is more violent than the criminals.
ii) Justice triumphs because the protagonist is smarter than the criminals.
Both Themes are from two different crime stories, and they’re exactly the same except for one word – the CAUSE. The first applies to the movie “Dirty Harry”, the second to Sherlock Holmes.
To break it down… Justice is the VALUE, triumph is the CHANGE from negative to positive, and violent/smarts is the CAUSE.
Get it? I certainly didn’t at first. It took me months of snorting through muddy plots and unearthing lumps of crap to finally find the Theme of my novel. In fact, I just nailed it a few hours before writing this post! But now that I’ve got it, I realize I led you all astray in my last post where I said that the theme of The Hunger Games was “rebellion”. Of course, now you and I both know that’s not a Theme, it’s a vague notion!
So, what’s the Theme of The Hunger Games trilogy? I’d sum it up like this:
“Freedom is gained because Katniss rebels against tyranny.”
The value is freedom, because ultimately that is what Katniss and the people of Panem strive for and value. The cause is rebellion, because without that nothing would change. And the change is positive, because they go from being complete slaves in their districts to… well, I won’t spoil the ending, and it wasn’t all hunky-dory, but things changed for the better.
The central Theme is the moral, the lesson and the ultimate meaning of the story. It ties everything together, and I’ll explain how next post.
Next Up from Heather… How a Theme helps you write.