I remember in high school, reading books like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and having to identify the Christ metaphors and color symbolism. I knew without a doubt that no author would ever actually put this crappy symbolism stuff in their novel intentionally. Unless you were doing it with the sole purpose of giving high schoolers work to do, what was the point of it all?
The idea of annoying high schoolers is a good motivating factor, but now that I’ve had a little more experience with novel writing, I’m beginning to realize that you can’t really write a story without a theme. A story without a theme has all the soul of a grocery list. It’s just a sequence of events with no real meaning behind it.
First, let’s define theme. A theme is what your story is about, even though it’s never stated outright. It’s the invisible thread that links your subplots to the main plot, and it’s the kind of thing that makes readers think about your book after they’re done reading.
For example, in Love, Actually, there are a number of story lines going on at the same time, but they’re all exploring different facets of love, illicit or familial or unconventional or passionate. In Batman Begins, the theme is fear, and how you let your fears define you–whether you use it to become a hero, or use it to control and incapacitate a city. In Finding Nemo, the theme is how avoiding all risk keeps you from experiencing life.
China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station always comes to mind when I think of themes. The book explores intersections and borders—that in-between space that happens when something meets up with something else. One character in the story is made up of pieces of many different creatures. He hires a sculpture to sculpt his portrait, and her challenge is finding how to represent those places where he turns from one creature into another. Yet she herself is a creature that has the body of a human female and the head of an ant. Another character is a bird-man, but his wings have been cut off, so he’s not quite bird enough and not quite man enough for the societies around him. The subway station after which the book is named is integrated so completely into the cramped neighborhood around it that no one can really tell where the neighborhood ends and the station begins. The more you look at the story, the more connections you can see to this specific theme.
I previously talked about making characters, and how they need to have goals throughout the story. The three questions that I recommended you ask for each scene were:
What does your character want?
What does she do to get it?
What do her actions achieve?
When you’re developing a theme, you can go back to those questions and add another question on the end:
Why do these particular consequences happen, and not others? If your character achieves what she set out to get, why? If she doesn’t, why not? What message are you trying to send with the outcome of your story?
I’m not saying that you have to have a moral to your story, but you should have a question that your story answers, or a statement that your story affirms. If your theme is “do the means justify the ends”, then at the end of the story, your plot should have answered this question in some way. If your theme is “love conquers all”, then when the curtain falls, love will have done so.
A lot of times, if you have an idea for a story, you already probably have an idea for a theme, even if you don’t know it yet. It’s especially thrilling when you examine your story in progress and realize that your various subplots already fit into a theme. As an exercise, look over something you’ve already written, or something you have in progress, and try to find a unifying thread that runs through the story. You might be surprised.
As an added bonus, just think of the irritated high schoolers who might be searching your book for these very themes in the future.
Next time: Point of View