25 Things Writers Should Know About Theme

1. Every Story Is An Argument

Every story’s trying to say something. It’s trying to beam an idea, a message, into the minds of the readers. In this way, every story is an argument. It’s the writer making a case. It’s the writer saying, “All of life is suffering.” Or, “Man will be undone by his prideful reach.” Or “Love blows.” Or, “If you dance with the Devil Wombat, you get cornholed by the Devil Wombat.” This argument is the story’s theme.

2. The Elements Of Story Support That Argument

If the theme, then, is the writer’s thesis statement, then all elements of the story — character, plot, word choice, scene development, inclusion of the Devil Wombat — go toward proving that thesis.

3. Unearthed Or Engineered

The theme needn’t be something the writer is explicitly aware of — it may be an unconscious argument, a message that has crept into the work like a virus capable of overwriting narrative DNA, like a freaky dwarven stalker hiding in your panty drawers and getting his greasy Norseman stink all over your undergarments. A writer can engineer the theme — building it into the work. Or a writer can unearth it — discovering its tendrils after the work is written.

4. Theme: A Lens That Levels The Laser

Knowing your theme can give your story focus. If you know the theme before you write, it helps you make your argument. If you discover the theme before a rewrite, it helps you go back through and filter the story, discovering which elements speak to your argument and which elements are either vestigial (your story’s stubby, grubby tail) or which elements go against your core argument (“so far, nobody is getting cornholed by the Devil Wombat”).

5. Do I Really Need This Happy Horseshit?

Yes and no. Yes, your story needs a theme. It’s what elevates that motherfucker to something beyond forgettable entertainment. You can be assured, for instance, that 90% of movies starring Dolph Lundgren have no theme present. A story with a theme is a story with a point. No, you don’t always need to identify the theme. Sometimes a story will leap out of your head with a theme cradled to its bosom (along with the shattered pottery remains of your skull) regardless of whether or not you intended it. Of course, identifying the theme at some point in your storytelling will ensure that it exists and that your story isn’t just a hollow scarecrow bereft of his stuffing. Awww. Sad scarecrow. Crying corn syrup tears.

6. Slippery Business

I make it sound easy. Like you can just state a theme or find it tucked away in your story like a mint on a pillow. It isn’t. Theme is slippery, uncertain. It’s like a lubed-up sex gimp: every time you think you get your hands around him the greasy latex-enveloped sonofabitch is out of the cage and free from your grip and running into traffic where he’s trying desperately to unzipper his mouth and scream for help. Be advised: theme is tricky. Chameleonic. Which isn’t a word. But it should be. It jolly well fucking should be.

7. For Instance: You Can Get It Wrong

You might think going in, “What I’m trying to say with this story is that man’s inhumanity to man is what keeps civilization going.” But then you get done the story and you’re like, “Oh, shit. I wasn’t saying that at all, was I? I was saying that man’s inhumanity to cake is what keeps civilization going.” And then you’re like, “Fuck yeah, cake.” And you eat some cake.

8. Mmm, Speaking Of Cake

In cake, every piece is a microcosm of the whole. A slice contains frosting, cake, filling. Okay, that’s not entirely true — sometimes you get a piece of cake where you get something other pieces don’t get, like a fondant rose, but really, let’s be honest, fondant tastes like sugary butthole. Nasty stuff. So, let’s disregard that and go back to the original notion: all pieces of cake contain the essence of that cake. So it is with your story: all pieces of the story contain the essence of that story, and the essence of that story is the theme. The theme is cake, frosting, filling. In every slice you cut. Man, now I really want a piece of cake.

9. Grand Unification Theory

Another way to look at theme: it unifies story and bridges disparate elements. In this way theme is like The Force. Or like fiber. Or like bondage at an orgy. It ties the whole thing together. Different characters, tangled plotlines, curious notions: all of them come together with the magic motherfucking superglue of theme.

10. Put Down That Baseball Bat, Pick Up That Phial Of Poison

Theme can do a story harm. It isn’t a bludgeoning device. A story is more than just a conveyance for your message: the message is just one component of your story. Overwrought themes become belligerent within the text, like a guy yelling in your ear, smacking you between the shoulder blades with his Bible. Theme is a drop of poison: subtle, unseen, but carried in the bloodstream to the heart and brain just the same. Repeat after me, penmonkeys: Your story is not a sermon.

11. No Good If Nobody Knows It

The poison is only valuable if the victim feels the effects. Your big dick or magical vagina only matter if people can see ‘em, touch ‘em, play with ‘em, erect heretical idols to their glory (mine is cast in lapis lazuli and a nice sharp cheddar cheese). So it is with theme: a theme so subtle it’s imperceptible does your story zero good. It’d be like having a character that just never shows up.

12. Triangulating Theme

Ask three questions to zero in on your theme: “What is this story about?” “Why do I want to tell this story?” “Why will anyone care?” Three answers. Three beams of light. Illuminating dark spaces. Revealing theme.

13. As Much An Obsession As A Decision

The auteur theory suggests that, throughout an author’s body of work one can find consistent themes — and, studying a number of authors, you’ll find this to be true. (Look no further than James Joyce in this respect, where he courts themes exploring the everyday heroism of the common man competing against the paralysis of the same.) In this way theme is sometimes an obsession, the author compelled to explore certain aspects and arguments without ever really meaning to — theme then needn’t be decided upon, nor must it be constrained to a single narrative. Theme is bigger, bolder, madder than all that. Sometimes theme is who we really are as writers.

14. Theme Is Not Motif

I’ll sometimes read that theme can be expressed as a single word. “Love.” “Death.” “Plastics.” Let me offer my own one word to that: bullshit. Those are motifs. Elements and symbols that show up again and again in the story. Motif is not synonymous with theme. “Death” is not a theme. “Man can learn from death” is a theme. “Life is stupid because we all die” is a theme. “Sex and death are uncomfortable neighbors” is a theme. Death is just a word. An inconclusive and unassertive word. Theme says something, goddamnit.

15. Mmm, Speaking Of Cake, I Mean, Motif

That said, motif can be a carrier for theme: theme is the disease and motif is the little outbreak monkey spreading it. If your theme’s making a statement about death, then symbols of death would not be unexpected. Or maybe you’d use symbols of time or decay. I mean, it has to make sense, of course. A theme about what man can learn from death is not well-embodied by, say, a series of microwave ovens.

16. Theme Is Also Not A Logline

A logline is plot-based. It depicts a sequence of events in brief, almost vignetted, form. Plot embodies breadth. Theme embodies depth. Theme is about story, and story is the weirder, hairier brother to “plot.”

17. Piranhasaur Versus Mechatarantula

In English class, I was often told that theme could best be described as X versus Y. Man versus Nature. Man Versus Man. Man Versus Woman. Fat Guy Versus Hammock. Of course, English class was frequently fucking stupid. Once more I’m forced to call bullshit. Theme isn’t just you, the writer, identifying a struggle. That’s not enough. Theme picks a goddamn side. Theme asserts predictive outcome. It says, “In this struggle, nature always gets the best of man.” It predicts, “That hammock is going to fuck that fat guy up, for realsies.” Theme does more than merely showcase conflict. Theme puts its money on the table.

18. Take That Question Mark And Shove It Up Your Boothole

So too it is that theme is never a question. “How far will man go for love?” is a question, not a theme. Theme isn’t a big blank spot. Theme is the fucking answer, right or wrong, good or bad.

19. It Is The Question, However, That Drives Us

Plot can carry theme by asking the question — like the aforementioned, “How far will man go for love?” — but then it’s theme’s job to stick the landing and, by the end of the story, answer the question posed. Theme comes back around and demonstrates, “This is how far man will go for love.” It shows if man will go into the whale’s mouth and out the whale’s keister, or it shows it man has limitations, or if man’s love can be defeated by other elements (greed, lust, fear, microwave ovens, wombats).

20. Of Turtleheads And Passing Comets

Theme might end up like Halley’s Comet — once or twice in a story, it emerges from hiding and shows itself. The blood test reveals it and The Thing springs forth from flesh. In this way, it’s okay if the theme is plainly stated (often by a character) once or twice in the story. Forrest Gump tells us that life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. (And the film is like a box of chocolates, too — all the shitty ones filled with suntan lotion and zit cream.) The opening line to Reservoir Dogs could be argued to give away the whole point to the movie: it is, after all, a metaphor for big dicks.

21. Do Your Due Diligence

Read books. Watch movies. Play games. Find the theme in each. This isn’t like math. You may not find one pure answer to the equation. But it’s a valuable exercise just the same. It’ll teach you that theme works.

22. Your Audience Might Not Give A Shit (But That’s Okay)

Theme may not be something the audience sees or even cares about. Further, the audience may find stuff in your work you never intended. Like that old joke goes, the reader sees the blue curtains as some expression of grief, futility and the author’s repressed bestiality but, in reality, the author just meant, “The curtains are fuckin’ blue.” It’s all good. This is the squirmy slippery nature of story. That’s the many-headed hydra of art.

23. Not Just For Literary Noses Held High In The Air

Just the same, theme isn’t a jungle gym found on a playground meant only for literary snobs. Theme speaks to common experience and thus is for the common reader and the common writer. Theme isn’t better than you and you’re not better than theme. Like in Close Encounters, this is you mounding your mashed potatoes into an unexpected shape. “This means something.” Fuck yeah, it does. That’s a beautiful thing.

24. A Weapon In Your Word Warrior Arsenal

How important is theme at the end of the day? It’s one more weapon in your cabinet, one more tool in your box. It is neither the most nor the least most important device in there — you determine its value. My only advice is, it helps to get floor-time with every weapon just so you know how best to slay every opponent. Play with theme. Learn its power. I mean, why the hell not?

25. For Fuck’s Sake, Say Something

You want theme distilled down? You want it reduced like a tasty sauce? Theme is you saying something with your fiction. Why wouldn’t you want to say something? Big or small, simple or complex, as profound as you care to make it, fiction has the power to do more than just be a recitation of plot events. Your work becomes your own — fingerprinted in blood — when you capitalize on the power of storytelling to speak your heart and soul. Take a stand. Put your big dick and magic vagina on the line (figuratively speaking) and let theme be a bold pronouncement of confidence, a message encoded in the DNA of an already-great story.

* * *

Want another booze-soaked, profanity-laden shotgun blast of dubious writing advice?

Try: CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY

$4.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

Or its sequel: REVENGE OF THE PENMONKEY

$2.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

And: 250 THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT WRITING

$0.99 at Amazon (US), Amazon (UK), B&N, PDF

46 comments

  • #3 really resonates with me. Watching my theme emerge was one of the coolest things about writing a book. I had to unearth it, but once I figured it out it I went back and revised accordingly. The theme also gave me a powerful line of dialogue, and I knew it worked when one of readers quoted it back to me and told me how much it impacted them.

    Themes are cool.

    Tracey

  • I had a high school English teacher who thoroughly abused #22. He was always telling us to find the “hidden meaning” in books. Sure, sometimes there was something to it, but it got to a point that we all mocked him for it and started making up crazy themes for stuff. I don’t think finding themes in other people’s work is generally difficult, but putting them in without–as you mentioned–becoming preachy, especially when you’re writing, say, inspirational romance, is a tad more complicated.

    • @Graham –

      Not sure why anyone would want to write forgettable entertainment, but if they do, so be it. Some people like to smash themselves in the nuts with a book. It is what it is.

      For the record, I’m all for writing entertainment. It’s what I do.

      Just not forgettable entertainment. I don’t want my story to be the equivalent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. A good meal. A tasty meal. But not a forgettable bowel-shaker of a meal.

      – c.

  • I have to say, I’m getting more out of your blog postings (and books) than I picked up in older books and classes.

    Lusty dancing wombats and unwashed dwarves befouling the clean underwear have a way of focusing one’s attention.

    “Stick the landing,” is what the brave little gymnast did when she performed with a broken leg? NOW I understand theme.

  • I think that having a theme is something you can’t escape. Even Twilight has a theme (having a boyfriend validates your existence). But where I really like what you’re doing is that you’re offering suggestion on how to control and influence what you’re saying and to me that’s approaching theme from a very responsible angle.

    You’re all wild and fuzzy, Mr. Wendig, but you don’t fool me. You’re a smart guy and damn smart pen.

  • Well, I’m about to start my novel . . . and I didn’t realize what the theme of it (and the two following stories!) was until I read this. As it turns out, the theme is a mantra that I picked up about three years ago.
    “Everything turns out okay in the end.”
    Well. Apparently my mind is doing some sneaky stuff in the background. *stares evilly inside my head. Which, by the way, hurts. Don’t do that.*

  • It is so refreshing to read a blog discussing the importance of theme. Theme is very important to me as both a reader and a writer. While I enjoy fun, mindless entertainment just as much as the next person, I also appreciate the artistic value of a carefully crafted literary work. I wish theme (and tone, symbolism, etc) were more important to more readers, as it adds unparalleled depth and beauty to a work.

  • Intriguing words here, even though I don’t consider myself a writer. I see some interesting implications in a completely different avenue that I’ll have to ruminate on, though.

  • Theme seems to be one of those things I struggle with. I know it when I see and I totally get it but I can’t seem to define it half the time. Umm…it’s you know…aw heck, just read it yourself. You’ll see.

    I’m going to have to work on that. LOL

  • Theme is the core meaning that the events of a story add up to. (The events, incidentally, are the plot.) Theme is complicated because it’s philosophical. It’s not inaccurate or exaggerated to say that theme is the abstract, and plot is the concrete.

    For instance, the theme of Rocky is the triumph of the human spirit. (Rocky Balboa’s training regimen, his on-the-edge-of-poverty life, and the fight at the end of the movie is the plot — i.e. the concretes — whereas Rocky’s will and triumph at the end is the abstract meaning — i.e. the theme.)

    The theme of Anna Karenina is adultery and marriage in 19th Century Russia.

    The theme of Quiz Show is honesty.

    The (somewhat generic) theme of Lord of the Rings is good-versus-evil. (Star Wars is also a simple morality tale, which is one of the reasons these stories are so popular, despite not being overly profound.)

    The theme of Miller’s Crossing is ethics and order in an orderless society.

    The theme of Bladerunner is human life and the constant struggle against death, which is what after all gives life meaning.

    The theme of Les Miserables is injustice and justice in 19th century France.

    The theme of Othello is the destructive nature of jealousy.

    Theme is not quite the same as the symbolic (re: Abby’s excellent comment above): Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for example, is symbolic of a doubleminded man, but that is not the story’s theme. The story’s theme is the psychological destruction of a man who holds within him opposing desires.

    It is important to point out that not every story has a theme. Some of the most popular examples of themeless stories are soap operas, which are pure event, pure concrete, pure plot. A well-done story, however, blends theme and plot, so that the events dramatize that theme, and the characters embody that theme’s characteristics. A good story — like Othello — integrates the concretes with the writer’s abstract meaning. A good story dramatizes the theme by means of the character’s actions with which the reader can (in theory) relate, because the events and what they mean are all a part of the human condition. Who among us has not felt jealousy at one time or another, and who among us cannot relate with Othello’s psychological hell, Desdemona’s helpless frustration?

    Nor should a story contain multiple or disparate themes (re: lancelot’s question). There are, for example, two separate storylines running throughout Anna Karenina (Anna-Vronsky and Levin-Kitty) but the action of both of these lines contributes to the story’s overall meaning, which is happy marriage and adultery. Too many themes — like too many colors in a painting — cancel each other out.

    Theme is a very vital but woefully neglected subject, even in writing circles, and so I salute Chuck (“Bucket-Of-Dicks”) Wendig for writing about it.

    If you’ve ever wondered what separates great novelists from mediocre or even good novelists, one of the two main things is the writer’s ability to integrate plot and theme. The other is the writer’s style, which is the most complex component of literature.

    My thanks to you all,

    Ray

  • This…was really helpful actually. Theme makes a lot more sense now when I think of it as an argument or statement presented to the reader.

    Also, does anybody else want to see Syfy make a Piranhasaur vs. Mechatarantula movie or is it just me?

  • Well thought out and intentioned article. Style ans flair you have in spades. Humble opinion, but not advice: over-use of profanity hinders more than helps. This is advice: your Facebook button is a LIKE, not a SHARE, which makes it impossible for me to comment on your article when I share it, and won’t allow me to share it on my writer’s page. You may want to change it so we can spread your word far and wide.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds