To Theme, Or Not To Theme: An Argument

Theme. Whaizzit?

Theme acts as the underlying conceit of a creative work — in this case, we’ll just go with “a literary one,” for purposes of this bloggery. Theme generally acts as a message, a lesson, a core idea (and yes, it differs from “motif,” but that’s a topic for another day).

A theme might be:

Man’s Inhumanity To Man.”

It could be more specific: “It Is Unwise To Provoke A Sleeping Bear With A Sharp And Pointy Stick.”

It could be more ambiguous: “People Are Shit.”

Theme is the message demonstrated by your fiction. It says something about the world, about people, about How Things Are. It speaks to secret truth. The story is just a carrier monkey — the shell is the little Capuchin monkey, gamboling about and presenting his balls to passersby. The theme is the virus that the monkey carries: it is secret, hidden, and you don’t often realize that it’s tearing you apart until it’s far too late.

Theme is rarely plain-spoken. A character rarely trumpets the message of the piece, nor does he have it tattooed on either asscheek. (Though, that would be helpful for English 101 students.)

The big question is, do you include theme intentionally?

Or do you hope your work finds the theme on its own time?

The answer is… well. Fuck, I dunno. Let’s talk it up.

Con: Build It, And Theme Will Come

Look back over your life. Find those moments that mattered, or where you learned something. That night under the stars with Tammy Sue Loudermilk. That bad-ass Fleischmaschine concert. The day you took your first sip of ayahuasca tea and bludgeoned your first mailman because you thought he was one of those dadblamed machine elves. Remember how you felt? Remember the lessons learned? Looking back, you are bathed in the glow of nostalgia and reflective truth.

You did not plan that shit beforehand.

Some people do. You’ve maybe met them. Before an event occurs, they infuse it with such meaning and melodrama — they see how it’s going to go, what it’s going to mean in 10 years, how they’ll feel and what they’ll experience. It’s bullshit, of course. You can’t plan that. Information about our lives is gained in retrospect. Yes, some deep information is gleaned at the moment of the event, but even there it’s not something determined before the event occurs.

That’s theme. You can’t decide it beforehand, lest you over-infuse your work with Big Message over Good Story. It’s like steeping tea too long; it’ll become a bitter, undrinkable brew.

Look at it from another angle: maybe you take a film class, and you learn, “The horror and sci-fi films of the 1950s are about invasion and distrust, raising the dual specters of Communism and Nuclear Destruction, imparting hidden themes about blah-blah-blah.”

Do you think that the creators, the filmmakers, all got together in a clandestine subterranean bunker to plot out their Hidden Message? Did they have a newsletter? Did they arrive at a Theme of the Week? Was there a secret handshake?

Or do you think that the fears of the time were simply pervasive, and that the creators were in effect an antenna meant to capture and relay that thematic “signal?”

When you’re plotting a story, you have an overflowing cornucopia of things you need to worry about. Character, plot, adhering to the outline, nailing the actual writing. Is this really the best time to be focusing on the intangibles and invisibles of your story? Are you so interested in The Message? Aren’t you instead interested in The Story first and foremost?

Let me drop some science in your lap: theme will come. By choosing the story you’ve chosen, and through the act of telling it, you’re imparting a theme. You maybe don’t know it. You maybe don’t ever need to know it. Theme is, in its way, like a declaration of art: let the readers and scholars puzzle out what you were Really Trying To Say. Your job is just to tell the best goddamn story you can tell. Their job is to figure out what that means to them.

Pro: You Best Lock That Shit Down, Son

Verboten! Oh! I’m sorry! I didn’t know I was talking to Nancy “Namby-Pamby” Witherspine. I thought I was talking to a real writer.

You want theme to magically grow up out of your organic story garden? Shut up. If you’re so lazy with your laissez-faire attitude (a.k.a. “Buy a ticket to the Lazy Fair, don’t forget to take a ride on our Slog Flume, the Dumper Cars, and the Bipolar Coaster!”), why not just start writing without any idea at all what you’re doing? Don’t bother naming a character. It’ll come! Don’t outline. The plot will mysteriously figure itself out! Hell, don’t even touch the keyboard. If it’s meant to be, the keys will psychically respond to your desires to tell a good, meaningful story. Why not throw darts and drive a car blindfolded? Follow your instinct, Young Jedi.

Piss on that kitty. Theme is what separates Man from Animal. Or rather, theme is what separates Mediocre Fiction from Meaningful Fiction. Telling a story is only one battle of many. Another battle is making that story mean something so that people give a shit, so that they have context and take something away from it. A story without theme is empty calories. You want your readers to grow fat and swollen on the reason you’re writing the story in the first damn place.

That means you’d better figure out your theme before you start to write — how else will you ensure that you’re making your point, or even that you have a point at all? You can’t enter into this fiction on a wing and a prayer. Do you have control as a craftsman? Or will you be one of those weak-backed, buckle-kneed artistes giving into the myth that your fiction lives somehow outside of you, that your words are the breath of some Fickle Voodoo Muse?

Control your work. Your fiction is like a dog. It needs discipline. It wants to be leashed.

Coincidentally, I also want to be leashed and want discipline, but that’s a post for another day. One where I post the many images of me in assless chaps, a gimp mask, and a My Little Pony buttplug.

Goddamn, that’s going to get me some sweet Google hits.

Conclusion: The Truth Is Somewhere In The Middle

Double Yellow Believe it or not, both perspectives are right… and both are wrong. Uhh. I think. As I said, I’m working through this same as you. I don’t know the Good News Gospel. I only know what my brain and my experience tells me thus far. Tomorrow, I’ll probably change my mind. Get used to it.

Right now, I’m outlining a new novel.

I did not conceive of a theme before I began the outlining and mind-mapping process.

I wanted to tell a good story with a great character — those were my priorities above all else, because a knockout theme don’t mean watery diarrhea if you have an awful story and terrible characters to convey that message. It’s like what I was saying in an earlier post about there being priority layers and building materials to this House of Fiction you’re building. Theme is genuinely very important, I do think that theme is what elevates fiction beyond pop entertainment to a story that lingers in the mind — but it’s not fundamental, either. It isn’t the foundation or the floor — you might say that it’s the paint on the walls, or the design scheme, or something altogether more unpindownable, like the way a house feels or smells.

So, I’m doing this mind map and an outline, and suddenly out of it grew a theme. It wasn’t something I meant to do, but it was something that grew up unconsciously out of all those elements arranged together. The theme came to me, I didn’t go to it. It’s like a Magic Eye painting. At first, it’s all noise. Stare at it long enough, and an image emerges. (Say that a bunch of times fast, “image emerges.” Eventually it becomes nonsense. Imma juh murgis, imma juh murgis. Anyway.)

And yet, because I let that happen before I started to write the piece, I can now enter into the process and try to hit on that theme more consciously. Now that I have it, I’m in control. I determine when it reveals itself. If I go too long without subtly invoking the theme, I can trackback and make sure I’m still playing with it so that the reader gets that… I dunno, that literary umami. That lip- and tongue-smacking savoriness imparted by delicate use of theme.

So, there you go. That’s what I’m advocating as of this moment. Plan your work before-hand, and see if any themes rise to the occasion before you actually commit pen to page or fingers to keyboard. Treat your work almost as if it’s someone else’s work — see what themes jump out at you. See what secret messages your brain was sending. Invoke accordingly.


  • Okay, so, I should be pissing on the kitty while willing the keyboard to bang out my one-way first-class ticket outta Dayjobville?

    Seriously, the more things I experience and arguments I hear, the more the saying “The truth is somewhere in the middle” seems to apply to, well, just about everything.

  • Josh:

    I feel exactly the same way. It’s true for stories and debates — every thing has three sides, Yours, Mine, and The Truth In The Middle.

    — c.

  • I’ve found in poetry that starting with a theme generally leads to cookie-cutter polemics or dry-as-sand navel-gazing, and I’ve seen it in fiction, too. Theme should be organic and so deeply ingrained as to be undetectable, coming from the writer’s beliefs and perspective on the world.

    Mark Barret also has some great posts on Theme at his blog, Ditchwalk:

    • That’s the thing — I think that unlike most parts of The Process, theme is something that’s best left to the middle or the back-end. Let it grow out of the components; in wizardly terms, it’s like getting together a bunch of strange reagents (Eye of Gibbon, Boglestongue Leaf, Whale Blubber, Gunpowder) and seeing what results. It seems best as something imperfectly known and organic.

      Though, I don’t know if it’s quite as dramatic as you lay it out, Jeff. I could say, “Right now, I’m interested in this notion that Actions Have Consequences, or this other notion that Technology Is About To Outpace Man.” As such, I figure I could come up with fiction surrounding those themes and notions without it being heavy-handed or speechifying.

      Will said something interesting, though, about going back through the work as a reader. In a totally perfect and precious world, we’d have about 6 months to a year between finishing a product and actually editing it. When I’ve had that degree of room, I feel much more confident in my edits, and further feel less attached to the work and can approach it as if someone else wrote it. Of course, it’s hard to guarantee that level of time.

      Guy: thanks for the link! Checking it in t-minutes, 3, 2, 1, now.

      — c.

  • Starting with a theme is great if you’re writing a political speech. Starting with a theme and then writing a story will result in a political speech.

    So, yeah, this topic is where Egri and I part ways, since he wants the central thing about a story (or, a play in his case, I guess) to be its premise.

    There’s a Gameplaywright post coming on this someday.

  • Nice post. One of the aspects of writerly thinking is finding theme, either in real life (so you can appropriate it for fiction) or in fiction (so you can create and emphasize it). For me, I set out with themes in mind but also tend to find themes as I go… or afterward, when I’m reading my own work, you know, like a reader.

    The themes that find their way into the work without the writer’s explicit toil to put them there can end up being vital parts of what makes the story work. Where they come from is anyone’s guess — conjured up as if by magic. Magic, I say.

  • My two cents?

    First, I’m saying this for the sake of the internet, not you personally Chuck.. I do believe that sometimes you can just tell a story and theme and depth doesn’t mean shit. Sometimes you can write just to excite, or titillate, or make laugh. Theme isn’t the end all be all of good writing. (I may say that because I write what has been called ‘candy writing’ and I’m trying to justify my own existence.)

    So theme? If you’re writing your first draft, maybe even your second draft, I tend to think fuck theme in the ear. Theme is a thing that comes out of that second or third read through when you look and say ‘this means something’ like that dude in Close Encounters. That’s where I tend to go back and massage a few things to make sure the theme is a little bit like God is supposed to be. (Present in all things, obvious in nothing.)

    But then again, I write candy, so what the fuck do I know? *Grin*

    • Ka-ching. Zwei pfennig.

      I really don’t think writing needs theme to connect — but I think those works that are more transcendent and do linger in the mind are ones with present, even pervasive themes.

      See, I don’t know that “theme” needs to be as haughty or as heavy as people think it to be. It’s simply the sign of another layer, a deeper thing. Candy writing can have themes. McCammon’s newest is very much a rollicking adventure that meets a pre-Revolutionary War serial killer hunt. And yet, the themes throughout are plainly seen, though not so it gets int he way of the text. (Subtext should always remain sub, sub, sub, three themes in a tub.)

      But I think you’re right that it’s something that comes out of it after, not before. As noted, I’m finding a persistent theme in my latest outline, though. I didn’t mean for it to be there. It’s just… there. And now that it is, I’m happy I found it.

      — c.

  • I think it could be the other way around. Works that are more transcendent and do linger in the mind lend themselves to inventing themes they “obviously have” whether or not those themes were intended in the original writing. There’s chicken and egg shit going on here, is what I’m getting at.

    I’ve seen too much of the process of literary analysis over the years to regard it as anything other than spinning cotton candy theories out of thin air, and identifying theme is one of the subcategories at work there. That’s not to say that theme can’t be used as a deliberate tool for designing a fiction, but overall I see it more as a byproduct both of writing and of analysis.

    Above, Filamena talks about justifying her existence because she does “candy writing”. I guarantee you there are themes in that candy, just as there are themes in anything. Show me a Michael Bay film, I’ll identify 6 themes in the first 20 minutes. My English degree has trained me thus. Themes are a perspective on the work, at the end of the day. They might have been intrinsic and intentional, but not always, and regardless, they are not the work itself.

    • Themes are not the work itself, absolutely true. Then again, no constituent part is the work itself — the characters aren’t the work, the plot isn’t the work, the writing isn’t the work. The work is a whole piece, and theme can be a part of that is my point. Candy can have themes. Hell, I can watch that awful Old Dogs trailer and pick one a theme or three. You’re right in that it doesn’t guarantee value, no. And a chicken and egg thing is perhaps at work, sure — I agree that it’s best served as a byproduct.

      I don’t agree that literary analysis is spinning cotton candy, though. (Though, it’s always possible I’m just trying to justify my college education!) I think analysis is of great value. Not just to pick apart what makes a story great, but to see how one’s own work can be made better — or worse — by invoking elements. Do I think that analysis is necessary to enjoy a story? Not at all. Do I think it can enhance one’s enjoyment? Absoflogginlutely.


      Grosse Pointe Blank.

      I love this movie.

      I watched it the first two times, and I just loved it. No harm there. I opened myself to it, I let it into my chest cavity, and I cradled it next to my heart. I didn’t really know why it had connected, but it did.

      On subsequent viewings, though, I started to poke around in there. And I found a surprisingly layered film, one that has a number of larger and smaller themes at play — Death of the American Dream, You Can’t Go Home Again, the Loss of Innocence. These elements are hit on enough that it becomes clear that they’re not accidental. The creators may have stumbled upon them in early drafts, but then clearly (in my mind) went back and ensured that they were not only a greater part of the script, but also an element of set design and art direction.

      I guess my point is, just because you’re writing candy doesn’t mean you can’t reach for Greater Things with your work. That reaching (be it overt or only semi-consciously) remains something that ideally does still elevate a piece. Sure, you can scare up a theme in Michael Bay’s work, but to me that feels more “square peg – circle hole.” I don’t know that I see much evidence of him actively thinking about the layers or subtext. Maybe it’s in there. While I might be dismissing Michael Bay, I am not dismissing “candy” or “genre” fiction in terms of those larger, more meaningful elements. James Cameron has a number of themes at play, and they feel intentional, to boot (though I might be imagining intentionality).

      — c.

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