I apologize for what follows...no, I don't.
There is a breed of writers who come late to the craft, feeling they can slip into their work with a superficial understanding of literature. Hey, they like to read, don't they? Then what the heck? These folk tend to do a good deal of mimicking of their favorite authors without a deep appreciation of the underlying writing principles. Many flock to writers' groups, present their efforts and receive feedback without giving consideration to dedicating themselves to improving their different problem areas. Instead they concentrate on the one short story or chapter without addressing the overall issue, which is sort of like turning up the volume on the radio to cover the sound of an unpleasant engine noise.
I have therefore decided to do a series of posts, not necessarily as a writer, but as a teacher. I thought I would examine certain literary concepts which span all genres. If someone reads what I have to offer and it sparks ideas or self-examination for improvement, so much the better. If all it does is allow me to revisit certain ideas for my own introspection, then that's fine, too.
This is perhaps one of the most important concepts for me as a writer and as a reader. It also seems to be one of the most difficult ideas for some writers I know to grasp. "Not all stories have theme," someone argued. "I just write. As long as I tell a good story, what's the problem?"
My response is that where the writer gives careful consideration to theme, you have a stronger story, one where the characters and the plot have greater impact. The theme is quite simply the glue. If Yoda were teaching a class to Jedi writers, he would explain : "Theme is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy and your writing together."
Theme, quite simply, is what a story is about. It's the underlying idea. In Christina Myers-Shaffer's excellent book The Principle of Literature, A Guide for Readers and Writers, the idea of theme is defined this way:
"Unlike topic (the subject of the story, such as war, love, business, or children), the theme is what the story is about, its plot, setting, and character blended with the writer's perceptions to make a statement about a subject." Some folks will attempt to classify conflict as theme, stating all stories boil down to either man v. man, man v. nature, or man v. himself. This simplified attempt to compress an idea is wonderful for multiple choice quizzes, but not so good for picking apart complicated concepts or for giving a writer or reader a true sense of what an author is trying to accomplish.
The theme of a story is usually not directly stated, but instead revealed through the characters' words, actions, and through plot. While some themes may stand out to the readers, others may not be so apparent. And sometimes, to make matters worse, a single work have different themes, some even competing, others layered.
Perhaps for the sake of clarity, it would help to look at an example. I will use a well-known work which I hope most people are familiar---Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird.
The novel is about the coming of age of a young girl, but to present that as the dominant theme ignores the other themes which are part of her loss of innocence (although I would argue Scout doesn't entirely lose her innocence). Perhaps the richest complementary thematic thread to this is the idea that lack of understanding and acceptance causes tremendous damage to people who are perceived by others as different.
This theme is front and center, and given voice in her father's admonition: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view---until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it."
When you stop and see examine the characters and the plot development in To Kill A Mockingbird, it's easy to see how the author has woven together some possible disparate threads into a unifying and satisfying whole. Without the theme, you have a number of touching elements coming together, but they have no anchor.
Aristotle wrote about this idea of creating a whole in The Poetics. He addresses the idea of unity in writing (and we can express unity as being the combination of elements of writing in forwarding a theme or idea. According to Aristotle:
"As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole."
Perhaps the easiest way to break it down is to describe the theme as a compass. When a writer sits and considers elements of plot or how a character behaves, he might stop and ask how these things fit into the theme he or she has chosen as the spine of their work.