Friday, April 01, 2011

Looking At Theme

I apologize for what, 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.


Steve Buchheit said...

I often don't have a theme when I start out, except for those nebulous ideas and perspective I carry around in the back of my head. But by the second or third edit/rewrite, I've figured it out and do everything I can do push the idea home.

Charles Gramlich said...

Definitely one of the tougher topics for me to grasp. Part of the problem is that different folks use the term in different ways. I tend to think Theme develops out of the worldview of the author in an interaction with the characters and story of the text. That may not make any sense at all.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Steve, it amazes me how often I hear people say that...every one has their own approach. For me, having a compass makes life so much easier. Going back, having to take out enormous chunks of manuscript because things have so changed by the end seems inefficient.

Charles, I love your statement about theme and the author's worldview. Me? I tend to take an Aristotelean point of view.

MKeaton said...

I've actually been mocked for it on panels before but it remains true: I start with a theme and work backward from there (Gordon Dickenson called the technique "conciously thematic").

The problem with this approach is that it makes starting a story a lot harder--specifically finding the right place to begin the story and how to pace it.

And I absolutely think you're both right about the worldview-theme relationship.


Jon said...

Theme is what I have after I finish a piece and you say, "What's the theme," and I have to scramble to try to divine I what I suppose I meant to say. Even though I've already said it in the story.