To Theme, Or Not To Theme: An Argument
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
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
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.