Thursday, February 11, 2010

Use of Theme

Quiet a few years ago, as a critique circle newbie, the group I was with would set deliberate exercises to help us focus on various writing craft elements. It might be point-of-view, writing in various tenses etc.

One month someone proposed themes – i.e. looking at and articulating the theme of our current work in progress.

I can remember thinking at the time ‘Theme? Huh?’

I had never consciously put a theme into what I wrote, and expressed my puzzlement to the group. Someone immediately responded ‘You do though! You always have quite strong themes coming out in your stories.’ After having thought about it a little while longer, I realized they were right. I did actually have themes in my work (it felt kind of like looking at those 3D pictures hidden inside another photo - it leapt out at me when I looked for it), but these were emerging almost unconsciously through the struggles of my characters and the way I had constructed the plot. Yet it was all instinctual.

I do spend time thinking about what is the core essence of a book – essentially ‘what the book is about’ – but really in terms of the characters and their journeys. I don’t use a theme or series of themes as a deliberate cornerstone for my work.

I know that some writers do have themes or issues that they feel strongly about, even to the extent that this may be one of the key reasons they are driven to write in the first place. In this case, the theme, and consideration of how to express this, forms an essential part of their initial creative process and a central anchor to their whole project – something that they may return to again and again to see if they are ‘on course’.

Do you try to bring out a deliberate theme in your work, or is it something you just let happen? Do you think the consideration of a theme is essential to writing fiction?


Anonymous said...

I didn't worry about theme much during my first stories. I was too worried about filling in the plot. The original goal was to just get it written.

I've now got a few stories under my belt, and I've realized that I do write to a theme. I may not know it at first, but somewhere in the midst of the story, I find the theme. I then cater the rest of that story to it.

I've found that it gives my stories a much more cohesive feel, like there really was a purpose to the story. I like that better :).

My latest story is actually a metaphor for how I believe we return to our maker upon death. I started "Rocket Girls are Real" as an imaginary friend story and realized halfway through that that's what I wanted to do with it. The rest was surprisingly easy.

I think that might be why I get stuck so often in stories. Often still, I just begin a story because I like the sound of it. Then I have to set it aside and figure out what I want to do with it. Weird.

Linda Davis

Rowena Cory Daniells said...


Like you, I discovered I was exploring themes, but only after I'd finished writing the stories.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

I'm in the midst of writing my first book, at it only really clicked for me when I finally realised my theme. Until about a week ago, my plot and plan was bound together as just a series of events happening to characters - good, but not great. Although if I am honest, I think there was always what I would rather charitably like to think of as a "greater meaning" to the actions and arcs of the characters, but it was only a few days ago when it crystalised into a solid, tangible "this is what my book's about!"

I'm of the opinion that every good story ought to have theme, whether it is obvious or vacuous. It serves to make the reader care about something, just as they care about the characters and, hopefully, what they care about. However, a decent theme will not save a poor book.

C Kelsey said...

Theme is an interesting part of writing. I know that my stuff tends to have themes. I sure don't recognize them most of the time though.

Dave Freer said...

It themes I do. But only when I write a charcter with a thpeech impediment.

Define 'theme', Chris. We could be talking of any of 16 things here.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. That sounds very similar to my own experience. I've never deliberately used it as a way to clarify and propel a story - but it sounds like I should really give this more play.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Rowena. Did you recongise the reference to Vision? That was at the old writer's centre on Wickham Tce:)

Chris McMahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Johnathan. I think you're right about theme, every story that hangs together has a theme woven through it somewhere. It probably emerges from all sorts of different processes - considering plots until the 'gel', really 'getting into the character'. I rarely stand back and look at a theme as a separate way to assess the story - but its probably a great thing to do, especially if the book is 'sagging'.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Chris. I'm pretty much the same. There is usually something pushing the story, but I rarely look at that consciously.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. Now that sounds like a separate post! One I should have done first perhaps - Defining Theme?

I guess my take on that is some over-arching premise like 'nasty people abuse power, but good guys win in the end.' These are the sort of things that I rarely articulate, but feel instinctively. I'm not very practiced in pulling this out of my own work.

A friend of mine often described my short story genre as 'sticking it to the man'. I would say 'triumph of the underdog'.

Something that can be expressed in a phrase that sums up the core emotional propellant of the piece.

Clear as mud? Perhaps the theme for this ramble was 'man's struggled to articulate':)