Remember high school writing classes? One of the first assignments was always to define the theme in what you were going to write. We still see theme mentioned in book reviews, in blurbs and book descriptions, and in discussions about books. So, what exactly is this theme thing and do you need to worry about it as a fiction writer?
Yes and no. Theme is described as the underlying statement of a work. It applies to almost all types of creative work: fiction, non-fiction, painting, sculpture, whatever. The theme is, or should be, inherent in the work. However, this does not mean that you need to have a defined theme in mind from the start. Theme is really two things: the theme itself and the thematic statement. Let’s look at those two elements and see how they differ and how we can work with those differences.
Theme, in its broadest sense, is the underlying thing that your story is about. Love, friendship, growing up, prejudice, oppression. Those are all themes. In this sense, the theme doesn’t have to be expressed in detail. Think of it like a theme park or a costume party. The theme might be pirates or 1950’s dance party. It defines the broad strokes of the underlying idea but doesn’t put too many restrictions on how that idea is executed.
Thematic statement, on the other hand, is the specific statement being made by your story. It’s more of a position than an idea. Love hurts, friendship will always triumph, you can’t grow into your self unless you leave your comfort zone. All of those are more specific statements, and define the message of your story. But- and here’s the part that trips up many writers- you don’t necessarily need to know the exact thematic statement, or even the broad theme, when you start writing. Theme derives from experience, and the experiences of your characters within the setting and plot are what you are really writing about. Character, setting, and plot, if done well, weave together and inherently have an underlying idea that ties them together. The theme is revealed through the growth of the characters and how they experience and react to what is happening around and to them. Your theme should be unfolded as those details build up. And it should happen organically. You don’t want to beat your reader over the head with THEME! THEME! THEME! That gives a less than enjoyable reading experience and will turn readers off.
You can, of course, start out knowing what you want to write about. Theme can be defined and recognized at any step along the writing process. Just be aware that the focus of your storytelling must always be the story itself and how the elements inside that story react and resolve. If you do that, the theme will sort itself out and your readers will be able to see the theme and the message of the story without needing to be explicitly told.
Every good story has a theme. We just sometimes don’t know in precise detail what that theme is. And that’s okay. If we are doing our job as a writer, theme will take care of itself.
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