Got Theme?

Recently in my role as TKZ admin and self-appointed den mother, I noticed that we were getting a lot of traffic related to the topic of “developing a theme in fiction writing.” Since searches for that topic take people to an article I wrote back in 2009, I think it makes sense to revisit the subject of theme.

A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is authority versus chaos.

Theme vs. Subject 
We should not confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” Joe Moore wrote an excellent post a while back about how to distinguish between a story’s subject and its theme.

Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought. But having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension and depth to our stories.

Using a character-driven approach to develop a theme

I like to use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of A KILLER WORKOUT was “Mean Girls Suffer Last”. That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

What’s your theme?

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?


31 thoughts on “Got Theme?

  1. I like this, Kathryn. And the links are spot on. I never thought much about theme in writing my adult crime fiction novels, but in my YA books, that seems to come naturally (without the preaching).

  2. I find most writers flummoxed about theme, or where to find it. An exercise I do in workshops is one I call “The Dickens.” Go forward twenty years in time, after the events of your story, and have a child ask your Lead character why she had to go through all that. What did she learn?

    That lesson can be your theme.

  3. I don’t usually recognize a theme in my stories until I’m about 10,000 words into it. And that’s fine, I can usually develop it from there and rework the first fifteen or so pages to fit the theme.

    Most of the time I don’t even start with a subject. It’s usually just a first line.

    Appreciate the links, Kathryn. The more I think about what I’m trying to say, instead of simply telling a story, the better my writing develops.

    • Very true, which is why NaNoWriMo works for me. I’m 6000 words in and the theme just slapped me in the face this morning.

      My first draft, I’m learning, tells the story. All the rewrites after that, develops the story, keeping the theme in mind.

      I simply have to figure out how to cut down on all the damn rewrites.

  4. A timely post for me. I’ve gotten so involved in writing that I’ve forgotten to think about the theme of my WIP, which is “failure is guaranteed if you fail to try.” I’m not sure if the story so far is truly reflecting that. I’ll keep that in mind now.

  5. I envy writers who know their theme early on. Try as I might I don’t discover it until about half way through the first draft. Stephen King devotes almost a whole chapter to it in “On Writing.” Basically, he says that when you’re done writing the book if you can’t answer why you bothered you haven’t nailed it. “What’s it all about, Alfie?” He also says that starting with theme is a recipe for failure, that you start with story and progress to theme, refining it –and enriching your story — in rewrites.

  6. This may be another of those issues that divide pantsers from outliners. If you outline, it’s much more possible to identify a theme. That’s a considerable advantage: it means you can write with an eye to reinforcing meaning through thematic development. Pantsers don’t get to do this: their themes must emerge as their stories unfold–and the writer must be clever enough to see the theme when it takes shape. Often, someone else is the first person to pick up on a theme–at least that’s been true with me.

    • Good point, Barry, and I wonder if some of us are simply haunted by ideas we need to reproduce in our stories. Like Elaine’s repeated themes of betrayal–it just emerges spontaneously in the writing.

  7. Boy! Are we having fun yet? I really love this kind of discussion. Thanks. Now to put my thinking cap on and head to the drawing board to sort this one out.

    More! More! More!

  8. Since a secret part of me agrees with Stephen King’s axiom that 90% of everything a writer says about her or his own work is crap (although he uses a more colorful metaphor), I offer an answer to your question this way, Kathryn.

    Theme is always about my “vision” for a novel. This comes from asking myself one simple question: “Why do I want to tell this story and why would anybody want to read it?” I don’t start writing until I can answer that question because if I do, I’ll other run out of steam or it’ll suck. I have no time for that. Once I can answer that question, then it becomes much easier to select a suitable vehicle for the book (plots and sub-plots, characters, settings, conflict, tension, etc.) that will best serve the needs of the story I want to tell.

  9. REDUX:

    A bit late here, and maybe no one will see this, but I will answer the question with this quote from a character in my current WIP. You can read it below, or click there to listen to me do it character (and preview a kickstarter project I am considering).

    “You, boyo, must make your mark. You can be a sheep, you can be a wolf, or you can be a sheep dog. The sheep live their lives in equal fear of being eaten by the wolf or by the sheep dog. They’re always terrified of both, in spite of the fact that the sheep dog lives to protect them. The wolf and the sheepdog will always be at war over the lives of the sheep. You must choose to be one of those three regardless of how you want it otherwise. Which you choose to be will define you before God and men. I am no sheep. I reject the way of the wolf. I am the sheep dog. A sheep dog with big teeth, and nasty sharp claws and a bloody AK-47 hidden in my fur.”

    Tommie Dolan, from ICE HAMMER

    If you do go to the kickstarter link, I’d a appreciate feedback of what you think of the page, the project, etc before it goes live.

    found the error in the original post of this info… an extra ” in an address means it worketh not…this’n oughta go.

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