Theme, or What are you REALLY saying?

Theme, Symbol and Motif – Taking your writing deeper
A three part series on creating depth and cohesion in your story

Part 1: Theme, or What are you REALLY saying?

by JGM Daw

Ask three writers about Theme, and you’ll get four answers. At least that’s how it feels sometimes. Theme is one of those mysterious subjects that I have always had a problem with, mostly because it always conjured up images of rooms with animal print furniture and abstract art. Theme is hard, but it is considered ‘central’ to a story. Getting it right is important.

Theme - What are you REALLY saying

You, the author, need to communicate clearly and, more importantly, effectively with your reader. Theme answers the question, What are you really saying?

There are three main takes on theme that you will come across in the literature, but to me they are like different facets of a gem: theme as topic, theme as conflict, and theme as perspective. All of them are interesting, but none of them feel complete.

One of the most pervasive pieces of advice when it comes to theme is ‘just write, and the theme will emerge.’ As we will see, this is both beneficial and dangerous.

Theme as topic

The first, knee-jerk reaction to the question of theme revolves around theme as a topic. This isn’t to be confused with subject, which describes what the story is about, “i.e, boy meets girl.” Topic describes the general emotional environment in which the story takes place: alienation, ambition, deception, justice, security, etc. These topics can help to set the mood, the attitude, even the rationalization of the choices of the characters at
work in the story. The challenge is that focusing solely on theme as topic leaves a very wide and vague playing field. While your reader may know and even identify with the emotional tone of the story, theme as topic doesn’t take them anywhere.

Theme as conflict

Also known as the basic plots, narrative conflicts, and story types, these statements tend to be grouped into a finite and controllable list (usually seven in number, but that also varies.) The lists almost always include a comparison between two competitive extremes. Man  against man, man against nature, etc. are sprung from the classic list of Quiller-Couch’s seven basic stories. An updated list has buried some of the conflict, but it’s still there. Booker’s Seven Basic Plots couches the conflict in other terms, with labels such as Comedy, which is really is one side of a person struggles with events (and triumphs), and Tragedy, which is the other side, or person struggles with events (and succumbs).

The key to notice here is that there is a comparison, a conflict, a choice between opposing forces. Phillips and Huntley’s Dramatica: A New Theory of Story is explicit about this conflict, pitting one of 64 possible elements in complex relationships with at least three other options. Again, though, this puts the reader in the midst of the action without offering a way out.

Theme as perspective

You may also run across the idea of theme as a message or an opinion, where the author is taking a stand on a particular topic. Greed is evil, love triumphs over all, friendships don’t last forever, these are all value statements. The author, you, have thoughts and  experiences, either lived or explored hypothetically through your story. Whether you are conscious of it or not, the topics you write about mean something to you, and consciously or not, those opinions will come out in your story. They will present themselves to your reader through the dialog of your characters, the options they are offered, the fictional environment you place them in, and even the elements you don’t include in your story.

For example, if your perspective is that ‘love always triumphs,’ does creating a romance where every relationship resolves happily reflect a believable, enjoyable, engaging world for the reader? These are complex issues, and not easily resolved. Often, the author may not even be aware of their perspective, and without that awareness, may not successfully present a defensible argument for their perspective.

Theme as position

As you can see, theme is hard. It is kind of all over the map, but nailing it down will tighten your writing, and as a bonus it will let you know what your story is saying, and what it is missing. The truth of the matter is that theme is ALL of these things: topic, conflict and perspective, balanced together.

Theme is this:

The author presents the reader with a position on their perspectives regarding conflicting demands of the critical topics inherent in the human experience.

Theme as message

Position is more than simply perspective, which has a single point of view. Topics never present themselves in isolation in the human experience. Love, for example, does not stand alone, it is partnered with loneliness, apathyhate, and more. In our lives, these topics come into conflict, and we individually have to choose: to love, which may lead to joy, yet opens us up to heartbreak, or to isolate ourselves, which may create an emotional safety zone, yet deny us the chance to grow and flourish.

Theme is how you, the author, present your preference.  To continue the romance example  above, as an author you might choose to write a story that illustrates that you believe it is better to love, despite the risks, than to remain alone. You have an opinion on the conflict, a stand. In the story, you will illustrate the risks and benefits of both love and isolation, and present your verdict.

Theme as practice

So, finally, how does this help you as a writer?

An understanding of your theme is a bright light that shines on your assumptions, and challenges you to present the other side. The key is that you actually fully represent that other side, take THAT position for the reader as well and explore it as thoroughly as your preferred option. Thus your story becomes fully realized. And who knows? Maybe you will learn something about your theme in the process, and maybe even yourself.

Michael Hauge, in Writing Screenplays That Sell offers his own take on theme here:

“Theme is the prescription for living  that the writer wants to give the audience or the reader.”

So that is it. Say what you REALLY mean.


Michel Daw (aka JGM Daw) is a teacher, husband, father, son, uncle, brother and writer. He is an inveterate geek and SFF fan. His first full length novel, I Should Have Listened to My Cat, is undergoing final edits. He is also a teacher and published author on Stoic Philosophy, and maintains  a website (with his wife Pamela) at thestoiclife.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *