Among the six core competencies that surface and triumph in a publishable story (that includes movie scripts, by the way), none are quite as slippery, challenging and, too often, confusing as theme.
Oh, it’s gotta be there, no doubt about that. But getting it into the narrative, as well as the sub-text of the narrative, and doing so effectively and with stealth, can be the Achilles Heel of storytelling.
Try too hard and you’re preaching. Leave it to chance and your theme may be as elusive and fuzzy as an episode of Seinfeld, which proclaimed itself a show about nothing.
All effective stories are thematic. Even if they’re wildly entertaining and thrilling and scary, which isn’t what makes them thematic but is often what makes a thematic story readable.
The reason stories work is that readers develop empathy for the character, which jacks the ensuing vicarious ride to a higher level. Stories are always about characters, and characters don’t work unless we care. By definition, that alone is thematic,
Question is, is theme driving the story, is the story driving the theme? Both can work… but only when the writer knows the difference and makes an informed choice on that issue.
Choosing wrong can kill its chances.
So what is theme?
If you have to ask, your story is already handicapped.
Theme is how a story touches you. What and how it causes you to think about. How the story mirrors and/or comments upon real life. Theme says something worth saying, even when it’s obvious.
“Love is complicated,” for example. Obvious, but worth saying over and over, and the fodder for an eternity of stories in all genres.
Theme is not concept. Concept is what the story is about dramatically.
Theme resides outside of the story, because it remains when the story is over. Theme is truth, theme is belief, theme is consequence and meaning and importance.
Unlike concept and character and structure (core competencies all), you can actually stumble upon an effective theme without giving it a whole lot of literary thought. It’s almost impossible to write a story about human beings squaring off with problems without a theme emerging on some level.
If you write a story about a terrorist, for example, and that terrorist is your supposedly sympathetic hero, then you are saying something about terrorism, intentionally or not.
Intentionally is always better.
Theme is like a yard. Stuff’s gonna grow out there, even when you don’t pay attention. Question is, do you want a patch of weeds, or a carefully coiffed, Sunset-magazine quality showpiece that sticks in the memory?
If you want to publish, you need to lean toward the latter.
When a viable theme happens without the writer paying much attention – and it does happen – that’s because theme is ingrained in the DNA of the story’s other elements. Some genres are actually theme-driven: it’s hard to write a love story without a clear theme surfacing. Everything about love is thematic, like it or not, realize it or not.
In the search for story – either organically growing the story through a series of drafts, or planning the story’s sequence and elements ahead of time – theme can be proactively envisioned and engineered. Trust me, when John Irving wrote The Cider House Rules, he knew precisely what he wanted to say about the issues of abortion and right to life, and like the literary puppet master he is, both sides of that coin were explored with deft sensitivity and impact.
When Stephanie Meyer writes about hot pubescent vampires, she’s writing about young love and social separation. Her stories don’t work without that thematic level. Maybe she intended it that way, maybe it just happened, but in either case her pages are chock full of thematic DNA.
Same with Dead Man Walking, the 1995 debate-fueler starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandan, a film that challenged belief systems and no doubt changed a few minds by the closing credits.
A movie opens tomorrow called The Dilemma, produced by Ron Howard and starting some actor you don’t normally think of as highly thematic. The central question is all theme – what would you do if you saw your best friend’s wife making nasty with someone else? That’s also the concept, by the way, but don’t be confused, that isn’t always the case. In Raise the Titanic, for example, the concept was raising that ship from the ocean’s floor, but that was definitely not its theme. Government and Big Business corruption was.
Remember the 1993 film starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore? Sure you do… you and your significant other argued about that one all the way home from the theater. Why? Because the theme slapped you upside the head. You weren’t arguing about the movie, you were arguing about reality, about your life and what you would do in that situation.
The concept was the proposition of allowing a spouse to sleep with someone else for a badly needed one million dollar payoff… while theme was delivered as questions: what would you do if faced with that same opportunity? What is the nature and limits of fidelity and adultery? Does mutual consent come with a price tag? What are the consequences of shattering that which cannot be restored?
Character arc is theme. Heroism is thematic. Sub-text is a great vehicle to deliver theme, as is sub-plot. Whodunit… that’s not thematic until you add characters to the mix.
So many options, so little clarity. Once you understand what theme is, and isn’t, and how it empowers stories to greatness, you are suddenly able to design your stories for optimal thematic impact.
Even in mysteries. Michael Connelly is the reigning king of the mystery whodunit, not because his other core competencies are the best you’ve seen in that genre (they’re terrific, by the way), but because the thematic power of his stories are, and in a way that redefines his genre in that regard.
What stories have stuck in your mind because of their themes?
Next post: Can story development begin with theme in mind? We’ll look at one way – and it’s already right under your nose – that you can make that work for you.