“Theme”… Simplified.

As deep thinking, well-intentioned storytellers, we tend to want to make theme — one of the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling – something mysterious and complex.  And therefore, challenging.

It certainly can be.  But it doesn’t have to be.  The good news is… the latter (it doesn’t have to be challenging) is as much the stuff of bestsellers as the former.

I get emails about this all the time, folks wanting a better definition of theme, clarifying the difference between theme and concept (which is huge, like, apples vs. apple pie kind of huge), or simply seeking to understand how to make their story themes more powerful.

Here’s one answer: stop trying to do that.

Rather, simply by opening a thematic can of worms — by setting your story on a thematically-rich landscape (and no, that’s not a literal landscape, it’s a metaphoric one, synomymous here with tapestry, field, culture, or place; if you set a story in Bosnia, for example, chances are you’re already being thematic)  — you may indeed have all the theme you can handle.  And, it’ll become an element of the story that grows out of the other things you’re focusing on — dramatic exposition, character arc and scene composition — rather than the end-game of some mysterious and frustrating overt effort on your part.

Kinda wordy, I grant you.  Allow me to simplify. 

This is a bit counter-intuitive, but go with it for a moment and consider how often you’ve seen this in the novels and movies you love.

Separate your plot from your theme.  Don’t try to make them the same thing.  Yes, it’s good if they can connect, or at least don’t get in each other’s way, but in terms of your focus just worry about your conceptually-driven plot for a moment.  And then…

… because that’s a story… set it within a thematic microcosm.  Or, back to the metaphor, stage it upon a landscape that is inherently thematic.

Stage a story on the Titanic, and by definition you’re writing a story about facing impending death.  Could be a love story (warning: it’s been done), a crime story, a corruption story, a religious story… doesn’t matter.  If it takes place on The Titanic, you’re already thematic.

Stage a story in prison, and by definition you’re writing a story about right and wrong and corruption and human decency and even the death penalty.  All of which are thematic.  Love story?  Blackmail?  Violence?  Corruption?  Hope?  Faith?  It’s all there… behind bars.

Stage a story on September 11, 2001, and you’re being thematic whether you like it or not.  (If your story doesn’t tap into the wealth of thematic opportunity afforded by that date, I highly suggest you pick another one.)

Keep playing with this notion.

If your targeted theme — the issue you want to write about — is, say, police corruption… consider a plot that isn’t about police corruption, but rather, one that takes place against a backdrop — the surrounding culture and setting of the story — rife with police corruption.  A love story.  A redemption story.  A revenge story.  Anything.  No matter what it is… if it’s set against a world in which police corruption touches the lives of your characters, then you’re already exploring this theme.

You could place those stories — love, revenge, coming of age, faith, corruption, a murder myster — anywhere: in a convent, in the military, in college, in the suburbs… anywhere.  But if you set any of those plots in motion within a world surrounded by your targeted theme — like, police corruption — you can’t help but make it thematic in that direction.  Make your hero an Assitant D.A..  Or a rookie cop.  Or an investigative reporter.  Or the spouse of a cop.

You can’t avoid your target theme if this becomes your strategy.  And yet, you don’t need to solve the issue for humanity, or recruit anyone to a point of view… just explore it, allow your characters to navigate the core story from within this microcosm and all its nuances and influences.

Summary: even if the hero-specific plot isn’t focused on your theme, you can make your story highly thematic by allowing it to unfold against a background defined by your thematic target.

This happens everywhere. 

Has for years.  Even in the most thematic stories you can name.

The DaVinici Code’s plot is simply a mystery, with thriller elements.  Old hidden McGuffins are outed and betrayed, and bad guys are out to silence good guys, with an innocent hero caught in the cross-fire.  That’s a generic plotting 101.  It doesn’t become thematic — and like it or hate it, you can’t argue that Davinci was one of the most successfully-thematic bestsellers ever — until you plop into the culture and setting of the plot into the deepest dark corners of the Catholic Church.

Michael Connelly writes police whodunnits.  Every time.  Plots.  Good guys and bad guys.  The pursuit of justice.  But also every time, the crime and chase elements of his stories — all generic (not a coincidence that the basis for the word “generic” is “genre”) — are set against a background of something highly thematic, like racial tension (The Narrows) or police corruption or crooked politics, with sub-themes of personal values and redemption and middle age crisis. 

Mysteries that aren’t set up this way… that’s what you see on nighttime television… yet another New York cop show. 

Again: when plot, no matter how generic or conflict-driven, unfolds against (within) a setting that is full of complexity and darkness and risk, a place where opinions are divided and grey separates light and dark… suddenly you’re being highly thematic.

And then, you don’t really need to focus on theme to make it so. 

This technique is the basis of the most frequent and safe and successful of thematic strategies: explore, don’t sell.  The more you lean to the latter (trying to sell the reader on a value or belief), the closer you come to propaganda.  

In contrast, the deeper you explore a theme simply by locating there, the closer you may come to a publishing contract and an audience.

Can you name some stories that allowed setting (time, place and culture) to explore the theme, while a plot-driven story, otherwise generic, unfolded within it?


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Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

16 Responses to “Theme”… Simplified.

  1. Cindy Hassell

    There’s a wonderful young adult book called A SINGLE SHARD that provides a compulsively readable plot steeped in an exotic and unfamiliar landscape–12th century Korea. The settings are as removed from our modern experience as the dark side of the moon. But the young protagonist is as familiar and unforgettable as a lifelong friend. Mr. Brooks should be pleased to know that his Six Competencies shine through like the Big Dipper in this perfect little novel, which most deservedly won the Newbery Medal. An adult can read this book in a couple of hours, but will remember it forever. It’s that good. The theme: Do the right thing.

  2. spinx

    Thanks for bringing some more light on this touchy subject!

    As always, with such little details, that once had you screaming in frustration, once you get IT you forget just what it was in the first that was so hard to get.

    I really appreciate your willingness to try and get us there time and time again.

    And, and, and…………..yes- the last weeks, I have struggled with just that, mixing my plot with my themes, and it did not go so well- everything felt too forced, fabricated.
    The last days I just forgot about theme, and simply focused on my scenes, my plot- and what do you know?

    Suddenly all kinds of strange thing started to happen.

    Theme, among other things, is something you simply have to discover through writing. Pure writing, not planning, not plotting.

  3. Larry this is why you are so good at what you do. Great explanation.

    I’m currently reading Martin’s series on Fire and Ice. In Game of Thrones… the theme is that “summer is over and winter is coming” to the land he created. There are multiple plots in each book, and I mean multiple. Bottom line is, it has the feel of the Titanic. No matter how much intrigue between the kings and power, the reader is just sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the blue-eyed-dead to take over the world. *goosebumps* I could be way wrong, but as of book 2 that is what I am guessing.

  4. Needed this advice. Thanks.

  5. Martha

    Larry, you have this uncanny ability to write a post that just happens to cover a current discussion I’m having with someone, a post which answers our questions with sprightly advice given clearly and succinctly.
    Thanks again for hitting the nail on the head once more, (to use a cliche).

  6. Excellent, and timely, as I am trying to figure out the theme in my second novel.

  7. This is another excellent article. Thanks.

    I think it was Ray Bradbury who said something along the lines of, You can’t consciously write the theme, it has to develop on an unconscious level or it feels forced.

    Using the setting to atomically create certain themes is a great way to do it without beating the reader over the head, as you’ve pointed out.

    I recently re-read “The Witch of Blackbird Pond” and that is another example of the setting creating a powerful theme.

  8. This really got me thinking about different genres and stories. Almost all historical action-adventure gets theme from both time and place by default: Gladiator, Braveheart, The Patriot, Joan of Arc, Troy. “The price of freedom” (personal and greater) seems to be that theme. Great article!

  9. Great post, you’ve broken it down in a way that helps clarify it. Now I’m tapping my finger to my lips thinking, hmmm, I might already have a theme! Thanks!

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  12. Great information. I just finished Story Engineering, and thought of them as something I should actively engineer into the story. I like the idea of exploring the setting as a means of creating theme.

  13. Thanks for a good article. Worth the read.

  14. Question about revealing theme in story…I’m just shy of the midpoint and am writing a chapter in which my theme comes out rather strongly (advances the plot so I think its important). Up to this point, I’ve only hinted (at best) what the theme is.

    At what point does the theme need to be revealed? Is it necessary to make is clear to the reader in Part 1 or can the theme be overtly revealed (thru dialog, etc.) later?

    In other words, is there a sweet spot in story structure where theme can raise its head and say howdy to the reader?

  15. @Rich — in my experience I haven’t come across a ‘rule of thumb’ for when to fully reveal the theme. I think it’s a bit of a continuum (sidenote: is that the craziest looking work ever?)… at one end, you haver a story that seems to mean something but we’re not quite sure or able to pin in down; and then, deep into the story, it clicks, “oh THAT’s what this means…” …. or… at the other end, a theme is revealed early and everything that happens reflects upon it. In the latter case, which sounds like yours, perhaps you should strive, once the theme is on the table, to show consequences in play, what happens on both sides of the thematic proposition.

    Sometimes — this residing outside of the continuum — a story doesn’t do either. It teases with a theme, with weight, it’s a puzzle… and then, in the end, it means absolutely nothing. Or remains so vague that nobody but the author can take anything from it. Deep genre can be guilty of this, a mystery in which, well, we finally figure who dunnit, but it doesn’t mean much (Michael Connelly is the Big Cheese because he defies this risk), as do some horror movies (“oh that was scary… but that’s all it was”). Nothing wrong with that. Then there are stories like “The Sixth Sense” which never reveals anything meaningful or thematic at all, just an OMG. L.

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