Craft 101: Theme… as a Storytelling Intention

by Larry Brooks

As deep thinking, well-intentioned storytellers, we tend to want to make theme — one of the essential core competencies of successful storytelling — something mysterious and complex. And therefore, challenging.

It certainly can be. But it doesn’t have to be.

The good news is that the latter is as much the stuff of bestsellers as the former. The bad news is… sometimes we try too hard on this front and turn our story into something awkward or diversionary, and therefore problematic, to the dramatic arc itself.

A story about love, for example… that’s inherently thematic yet, as stated, pretty pedestrian and therefore only a start that’s nowhere near the finish line. Most readers would want to know more. A professional author would certainly realize they need more. It is how the author responds to that need where this thematic nuance comes into play.

Some writers begin writing a draft with no more specificity than that: a story about love.

If you’re in the romance genre, that may be enough to elicit a second question. Either way, though, “a story about love among White House staffers…” is more specific (not to mention compelling), because it combines theme and arena in a way that creates a sum in excess of either part.

That’s the key: understanding that a story is the sum of many parts. Only one of which is thematic.

Ultimately, whether you’re targeting agents, editors or readers, you’ll need to be specific relative to the story’s intentions at some point in the process. Theme alone never stands alone at the end of the day, even in an elevator pitch.

Writers, especially newer ones, benefit from an informed, functional definition of theme.  

They want to know (because many are confused on this count) the difference between theme and concept (the difference is huge; like, apples vs. apple pie kind of huge), or simply seek to understand how to make their themes more powerful.

It’s a great goal. But it’s one that is as easily over-thought as it is misunderstood.

Theme is simply this: the authentic life-experience and associated feeling a story calls forth within its fictional construct… what it may mean (to the characters, and/or the reader)… how it makes you feel (you being the reader, beginning with you as the author)… and why. How it relates to being a human being. Theme touches and challenges our humanity (because the characters are being challenged, as well) in a way that reflects our own experiences, fears, hopes, beliefs and values.

Effective thematic writing doesn’t seek to sell the reader on anything in the thematic realm, as opposed to selling them on the fictional conceit of the entire proposition. Rather, it seeks to make the reader think and feel, in whatever manner or direction the reading experience calls to them.

Dan Brown’s The Davinci Code is one of the more thematically provocative novels in decades. And yet, as many people are moved to anger and outrage as they are challenged to question their own beliefs, while others are simply entertained… or not.

Either way, you can’t argue that the same murder set in a local library instead of The Louve in Paris, with messages left from a retired janitor versus Leonardo himself, would renderr the same level of dramatic power. The difference there isn’t history as much as it is theme itself.

Theme isn’t something you actually get to control. Rather, you control the nature of the arrow that points to it without your story. Within that analogy, you are free to make the tip of that arrow as sharp or a blunt as you choose.

One approach: stop trying to be overly thematic.

Theme is often the outcome of setting: geographical, chronological, or sociologic.

By selecting certain story settings, you are by definition already being thematic, and chances are you’ll imbue the story with sufficient theme simply by going there. Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, for example, is set in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, which means you cannot escape the social and cultural thematic contexts of the story regardless of the dramatic arc… which when culled apart from the setting is about writing an expose and baking a memorable pie.

In most cases, plot works because of its inherent themes.

Then again, not all stories have rich settings. In such cases theme needs to emerge from the relationship between character action/decision and consequences, as shown through the arc (both dramatic and character) of your players. The ending of Nelson Demille’s Night Shift (the novel that knocked The Davini Code out of the #1 spot on the bestseller lists) is an example of selling you a speculative proposition, rather than a belief system.

It is also the most glaring deus ex machina violation of any novel in recent memory… but that’s another post for another day.

Separate your plot from your theme.

Don’t try to make them the same thing. Yes, it’s good if when they connect, or at least don’t get in each other’s way. But in terms of story development just worry about your conceptually-driven plot for a moment.

The Girl on The Train is about solving a murder when you are less than credible, possibly involved and are struggling with your own grasp on reality. The story doesn’t work until it does a deep dive into things that are highly thematic… or at least become just that when read by people with both a brain and a heart. Making such a story work is challenging on the dramatic, structural plot levels, with the theme sort of taking care of itself once the pieces begin to fit together.

Actually, it worked at the moment of story selection. The plot and the theme were there all along within the genius of that idea.

Some writers begin with a theme in mind.

Sometimes that all they care about; theme is the reason they are writing the story in the first place. In that case, the risk is over-playing the thematic and thus rendering the story an off-putting proselytization.

Just as often stories are hatched based solely on a dramatic proposition, completely without a targeted theme or thematic context. Murder mysteries are usually dramatic in nature, though when theme emerges you may have a Michael Connelly event on your hands. Sometimes that works… but when it does, it’s because theme tends to emerge from stories about life under the pressure of drama.

But that’s a risky bet. Always better to ask yourself if there are ways you can invite theme into your story via setting or imbuing someone in the story with thematically-challenging issues, and then allow that to become a story catalyst, rather than a pulpit.

The closer that union of two sparks occurs relative to defining the intended story itself, the better everything that follows with work.

It all goes back to story selection. Writers who keep showing up on bestseller lists have discovered the magic of weighing the dramatic and thematic equally, regardless of which one lit the fuse of the story.

Keep playing with this notion.

If your targeted theme — the issue you want to write about — is, say, police corruption… consider a plot that isn’t about police corruption. Rather, concoct one that takes place against a backdrop — the surrounding culture and setting of the story — rife with police corruption. A love story in the inner city. A redemption story among mob informants. A revenge story set in a police locker room.

No matter what it is… if it’s set in a world in which police corruption touches the lives of your characters, then you’re already exploring this theme in a way that in organic and driven by dramatic sensibilities.

That’s always the safest bet: explore a theme, rather than selling a theme that creates a polarized reading experience.

In many cases, you may not have a thematic challenge at all, simply by virtue of the kind of plot you are unspooling.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

5 thoughts on “Craft 101: Theme… as a Storytelling Intention

  1. Yes, Larry, I find writers often confused (and even fearful) about theme, because in high school they had to write an essay on that stupid green light on Daisy’s dock or some such. I try to demystify it in my workshops by having the students interview their characters twenty years after the events of the story (even if they’re dead!), and ask “Looking back, why did you have to go through that? What life lesson did you learn that you can pass on to the rest of us?”

  2. I remember a workshop where the presenter was talking about choosing a theme, and she read passages of her work and asked if we could identify it. Nobody could. (Although maybe if we were reading the book in Mr. Holtby’s English class, we might have been able to ferret out how a guy tying his shoes and strapping on his watch meant the theme of the book was “The Ties that Bind.”

    I do remember someone in class asking if the authors were conscious of the “meaning” (I don’t think Mr. Holtby ever used the word ‘theme’ but those were days long long ago), and he said, “Probably not, but when the author needed to choose one word over another, the ‘right’ word was the one that added the depth of meaning.”

    I don’t think too much about themes when I write, and I’m always surprised and a bit delighted when a reader says, “And I loved how you developed the music theme.” At the time, all I wanted to do was give my character a ‘non-stereotypical’ skill, so my 6 foot 6 cop has cats, not big mean dogs, and is a classically trained pianist.

  3. Excellent clarification of theme. Books that are only based on theme tend to lull me to sleep. I can tell right off by their description. For me, when planning, I write one sentence about the heart of the story. That’s it. The plot and characters tend to organically make the story thematic.

    For some reason I’m getting post notifications one day late. Odd, right? I don’t know. Maybe it’s me.

  4. “…theme tends to emerge from stories about life under the pressure of drama.”

    Great line, Larry, copying that to my favorites file.

    Sue, posts have been coming a day or two late to me also, so it’s not just you.

  5. Pingback: Wiing Links 5/8/17 – Where Genres Collide

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