Selling Your Story: The Thing About Theme

Writing/critique group members: when you’re done reading today’s post — you won’t want to miss it, either — slide down to yesterday’s entry for a special group offer.

Now for today’s post… buckle up, it’s a monster…

The Thing About Theme

As one of what I call “The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling,” you’d think “theme” would be some complex monster of a literary theory, just like “character” or “structure,” which certainly are.  (That’s three… the others are concept, scene writing and writing voice… monsters all.)

Not so much.  To a great extent theme writes itself into our stories.  It’s analogous to health in our daily lives – the abundance of it, versus the lack of it, defines how well we function.  It leads us to consequences, either way.

A state of health – and theme – is always there, good or bad, valued or not.  To not seek good health is to invite bad health.  Anywhere in the middle and you’re rolling the dice.

And that’s the point.  The more we value and cultivate the themes in our stories, the better those stories will be.

If you’re pursuing mediocrity, then go ahead and allow theme to take care of itself.   Ya pays yer money, ya takes yer chances.

But if it’s a bestseller or a movie deal you’re after, then you need to put theme to work for you from an enlightened perspective.

Wrapping Your Head Around Theme

In my workshops people always ask about the difference between theme and concept.  Which, once you understand it, is like asking about the difference between chopped spinach and filet mignon. 

They’re two items on the menu of our stories, completely separate and quite necessary to a balanced diet.

Theme is, to put it in its most simple terms, what our story means.  How it relates to reality and life in general.  Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on an issue.  It can be a principle or an inevitable stage of growing up.

Theme is the relevance of your story to real life.  Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter. 

Theme is life itself, as manifested in our stories, seen through our characters, and experienced through our plots.

Theme is what makes us think, makes us feel, allows us to invest ourselves in the story.  Which is, at the end of the day, the one single variable that determines how successful our stories will be.

Okay, maybe it is a bit on the complex side after all.  Which is why too many writers leave it alone. 

And when that happens, you leave your reader’s emotional response to chance.

The Use-it-or-lose it Power of Theme

It could be said, too, that theme is what your story is about.  As storytellers we always have two available answers to that question – hey dude, what’s your story about, anyhow? – and both are realms we need to understand.

One answer is story-specific.  The other is theme-specific.

In The Davinci Code, for example, the story is about a symbologist called in to investigate the murder of a priest in The Louve, the clues to which have something to do with the Mona Lisa.

That answer isn’t wrong, but it’s not right enough.  Because it doesn’t tell you the depth and meaning and power of the story, which is where the juice – and the market potential – resides.

Robert Langdon, the protagonist of that story, didn’t sell 80 million hardcovers and inspire a major motion picture.  It was the story’s themes that did.

Here’s the other answer: The Davinci Code is about the possibility that the Church has been hiding historical truths to protect their power base… it’s about the veracity of religion in general and the Catholic Church in particular… it’s about the lengths people will go to in order to preserve their belief systems and their ability to control the masses… it’s about God and man and love and justice and things that define our believe systems and our entire spiritual existence.

Two answers.  Taken together, they become a sum in excess of their separate parts.  Regarded separately, The Davinci Code becomes just another paperback, and a straight-to-Blockbuster film starring Lorenzo Lamas instead of Tom Hanks.

So how do you answer those questions? What is your story about?  On both a conceptual and a thematic level.

The more succinct your answers — and on both levels, without merging them — the more powerful the storytelling potential of your novel or screenplay.

Multiple Themes, Multiple Layers

If your story is about human beings, then you already have themes in play.  Is there a love angle involved?  A crime and punishment aspect?  A coming-of-life dimension?  Even if you just focus on plot and character, by definition you’ll be exploring these issues, and in doing so you’re brandishing theme as an element of your story.

Which sometimes works.  But it’s always wise to understand the tool (or better, think of theme as a weapon) in your hand as you wield it, lest you unwittingly poke your eye out. 

Don’t for a minute think that Dan Brown didn’t have all those killer themes in mind from page one.

Which brings us to yet another thematic point: it’s perfectly fine and good to have multiple themes in your stories.  Even if you have one strong thematic thrust, your story will touch on other issues of life that, with or without your awareness, will say something about them to your reader.

Often when working on an exceptionally rich thematic landscape, secondary themes fall into place simply by the power of good storytelling.  It’s not unusual for readers to pick up on themes in a story of which the author wasn’t even conscious.

People who doubt the power of theme need only to look around – dare I say, wake up – to notice that the best, and bestselling, stories are always thematically strong.

The exception, at a glance, is genre fiction: bestselling romances and thrillers and detective mysteries, which are strong on concept and character, with meaning taking a back seat to the action.  But don’t kid yourself, what makes those concepts and characters powerful is their relationship to the themes of life itself.   Michael Connelly’s police procedurals consistently out-sell everyone else’s precisely because his themes are stronger than those of his peers.

Because reader-empathy, the vicarious ride of genre fiction, is precisely what makes it work.  And reader empathy is nothing if not thematically-driven.

Even the most successful sit-com in television history – Seinfeld, which touted itself as a show about nothing – worked because of its relationship to real life.  It wasn’t the one-liners or the facial expressions that made us watch, funny as they were, it was the situations in which those characters found themselves. 

And that, too, is nothing if not thematic.

How to Handle Theme in your Storytelling

As an author you have two choices when it comes to theme.  Think of them as two extremes, a continuum upon which you need to land.  At either end of that continuum you take great risk, because real life isn’t black and white, it’s almost always complex and challenging.

Which is precisely what strong themes are.

At one end is a story with hardly any thematic depth at all.  It’s plot driven, idea-driven, like a puzzle.  The “Saw” series of horror movies are like this, they don’t say much about life, we just want to see what horrific torture contraption Jigsaw comes up with next. 

Even The Sixth Sense, one of the most successful stories of the past decade, leaned toward that end of the thematic continuum – it was about the gag at the end, the Big Surprise, and it said very little about life or the human experience.  Few were moved, though many were tricked and therefore came away feeling as if they had a good time.

Being less than thematic worked for that author, that time.  But look what happened to his career.  I’m just sayin’.

At the other end of the continuum (is that the craziest looking word you’ve ever seen, or what?) is the story that preaches its position loud and proud.  It’s actually more propaganda than drama.  Christian-based novels (such as the mega-hit Left Behind series) and movies (like the current DVD hit Fireproof staring Kirk Cameron, who not conincidentallyalso starred in the film adaptation of Left Behind) – which are just fine, by the way, because the consumer knows precisely what they’re signing up for – are examples of propaganda disguised as narrative drama.  Theme – the influencing of reader’s beliefs – is the up-front agenda, unhidden and unrelenting.

The Davinci Code didn’t go there.  The Lovely Bones didn’t go there.  The Cider House Rules, which is one of the most thematically rich stories ever told, didn’t go there.

The serious storyteller doesn’t go there, either.  This author knows that the reader cannot be manipulated, and the path toward thematic richness in a story isn’t persuasion, but the exposure of consequences that tweak the emotions.  That gets the reader thinking and feeling.

Somewhere near the middle ground of this continuum — not to be confused with the mid-point of story structure itself — is where we should target the level of thematic visibility and intensity of our stories.  Once we grasp that level, we may then set out to explore themes through our characters.

That thematic middle-ground is the sweet spot.

As one of the Six Core Competencies, theme becomes one of the most significant opportunities we have to sell our work.  Agents, publishers and producers love thematically strong storytelling… because despite the rumor, they, too, are human after all.

 (READER NOTE: because this post is so long and deep, not to mention critically-important to the craft of storytelling, I’ll leave it here in first position for a few days.  So feel free to return to review and soak up something you may have missed the first time through.  Hey, it happens.)

To my new subscribers (and there are a lot of you lately)… just want to say welcome and shout out a hearty thanks for signing on.  My commitment here on Storyfix is to deliver the best writing content on the internet, all with a fresh, enlightened and empowering approach that you may not have seen elsewhere.  Some people say it’s the clarity they’ve been looking for.  I hope this is the case for you, as well.  Let me know if there’s something specific you’d like me to cover.  L.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

14 Responses to Selling Your Story: The Thing About Theme

  1. Hi Larry,

    I saw this post, scanned to the bottom, and decided to wait until later when I could read it to savor the length and intensity.

    I’m glad I waited until I could give it my undivided attention, but I know I will need to come back for a second read. Damn, I love this stuff!

    Also, I want to give a shout out to Larry’s new readers. Keep coming back–Larry never fails to disappoint.


  2. I thought I knew the meaning of ‘Theme’ until now.
    Great clarification Larry.
    More power to Storyfix.

  3. V. J. Wilcox

    Every time I read one of your posts I think: wow, just what I needed. Thank you so much for sharing your insights. I’ve found each subject you’ve covered helpful. Question: how do you gauge whether your characters are slipping into propaganda mode when their dialogue reflects their strongly held beliefs/wants?

  4. The other posts on your blog have really confirmed that i’m heading in the right direction as far as story architecture goes, but this post nailed the thing that is missing from my work currently. I’d been unsatisfied with a few areas, and blamed it on dialog, lack of description, and multiple other reasons, but it all boils down to theme.

    i need to develop my theme just as much as my characters and story, and that is what has been missing but i couldn’t put my finger on it until now.

    If i could ask for your thoughts on one piece of the writing puzzle it would be on revising and editing. what strategy you employ and why, how to make your theme shine through in editing, and things of that nature. This is my biggest area of concern. Thanks!

  5. @Lori and Poch — thanks for the endorsement(s), very much appreciated.

    @V.J. — this is a great question. It’s a good thing when characters have strong beliefs and speak them boldly. Within the “quote” marks there are no rules, other than not having the characters sound boring or vanilla (unless that’s your intention, because as we know, not all people in real life aren’t). Just make sure you balance the character’s intentions with the story’s agenda, which is a subtle and over-arcing thing. Input from trusted readers is a way to make sure your story isn’t selling something harder than you intend it to. But if you’re solid on the intended level of thematic visibility (again, always a good thing to know early in the process), you’ll be the best set of eyes for this.

    @Adam – theme is often the last piece of the “competency puzzle” that begins to gel. So congrats on recognizing this realm in your own work, that’s huge. You ask about editing/revising — for me, I try not to over-think that phase of the work. I just go through and hunt down “wrong notes” and opportunities to trim and improve (usually synonymous terms in this context), using an overriding awareness of the principles of story architecture, thematic intention, scene construction guidelines and a general sense of sizzle to guide me. When you go back in, chances are you’ll recognize if you’ve been too heavy-handed relative to theme, or if you’ve missed a chance to punch it up. This part is never easy… master it, and you’re on your way to the next level.

  6. In this post, second paragraph from the end, I write: “Somewhere near the middle ground, where we introduce our thematic landscape and then set out to explore it through our characters, is the sweet spot of storytelling.”

    This morning I received a reader email asking this question: “You say to introduce your thematic landscape somewhere near the middle ground. Are you referring to the mid-point or some other middle ground?”

    Obviously, I wasn’t clear. My bad. I’ve changed it in the post, but for those of you who may have noticed that and not made the leap (the one I should have made clearer), allow me to explain.

    I talk so much about story sequence and milestones and midpoints and such, I can see where that question came from. But actually, I was referring to the “thematic continuum” – at one end are stories with no discernable themes whatsoever, at the other end is outright propaganda. The safest, and frankly best place to explore a theme is near the midpoint on that continuum, with a visible theme that shows all sides and angles, that goes deep, without ramming it at the reader.

    It’s not the mid-point of the story’s structure, it has nothing at all to do with the middle area of the story’s linear sequencing… it’s the mid-point of the thematic continuum in terms of the visiblity, weight, emphasis and in-your-face nature of the story’s theme.

  7. paulette

    Hello. So, my friend and I (whom i am getting to subscribe to your website) were discussing this topic after reading the article. We had a long hour’s worth discussion of the “theme” of our WIPs. It’s funny how such a little thing suddenly made the books so much more interesting!

    so now here’s the thing we’re waiting for: You mentioned how different concept is from theme 🙂 but never got into the actual differences. We need the “concept” side of the hammer now 🙂 🙂 🙂 Pretty please with sugar on top??

  8. L.B

    It never ceases to amaze that I never stop learning. I feel like a child raising my hand in the back of the class and then asking a stupid question makes everyone laugh. But I can’t help myself. I want to learn, I read and reread your posts because I can’t always keep up. It’s like a thirst I can’t quite quench. But in the end it boils down (for me at least)…need. I have the small bit of confidence that gets shaken once in a while but….when I think for a second that I can’t make it and that I should stop….it’s more scary to think that, than to continue plugging away and again back at the computer soaking up whatever I can.

    To you sir…you have my everlasting gratitude for your site and for your advise.

  9. Debbie Burke

    Larry, thank you for taking a vague amorphous concept and translating it into concrete understandable terms. I recall my college lit profs (who perhaps didn’t have a clear understanding themselves) trying to explain to students that theme was the meaning of the story, but their use of “meaning” was almost as vague as “theme.” Your specific examples blow the fog away from the concept and shine the light of understanding on it. This is the best explanation of theme I’ve ever seen. Thank you for more filet mignon.

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  12. M. A. Latimore

    Hey Larry, I loved this post – the perfect gift for a rather introspective Christmas morn. So many gems embedded. Theme has perhaps always been one of my favorite writing devices as a journalist come fiction writer.

  13. Elzu

    Good read, although I’d argue that M. Night Shymalan is probably pretty happy with his career, haha. I’d also argue that Saw was a bad example (possibly the continuation of the series) but the first film definitely said something about human nature and the kind of things we are willing to do to survive.

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