Take a look at this great piece by K. M. Weiland:
How to Find Your Thematic Principle
There are words I think of as “infinite words.” These are words that express more, in their essence, than we can ever quite seem to explain. They’re the words of poetry. Indeed, many are complete poems all in a single word.
For me, one of those words is “theme.”
Theme is one of those endlessly fascinating subjects you can study all your life and never quite nail down. You circle it many times and think you’ve got it captured in some neat little formula, only to discover you’ve seen just one of its faces, one of its many ambiguous and numinous aspects.
That’s fun. It’s also frustrating.
For a writer—or, indeed, any artist—who is trying to consistently create stories that are thematically strong and solid, our finite relationship to the infinitude of theme can often feel akin to facing down the night sky in an attempt to understand the universe. As with so much of writing, we either go mad, or realize “the struggle is the glory.”
Last week, I offered a bird’s eye view of how I see theme. That post was the first of quite a few discussions on theme, which I hope to posit this year. Today, I want to investigate the thematic principle.
What Is Theme?
One of the reasons theme is a tricky topic to master is that it is also often a tricky topic to talk about. Because it is such a vast (and abstract) subject, every writer seems to have a slightly different definition. I learned this first-hand via the many Writing Questions of the Day (#WQOTD) I’ve conducted on Twitter and Facebook over the years. One of the questions I occasionally ask is the simple “What’s your story’s theme?”
The responses span the gamut from writers who rattle off single-word summations (such as “responsibility”) to writers who fret because they can’t confine their theme to a single word. My personal preference for summing up theme is to look for the “Truth”at the heart of any prominent character change within the plot. But other authors will, with equal validity, choose instead to identify underlying topics or recurring motifs, many of which are never made explicit within the narrative.
This myriad of subtly different approaches can create confusion about what theme actually is. After all, every single one of these approaches seems legit. And they arelegit—because every single one of them, although not necessarily definitive in itself, helps us gain a bigger-picture view of story. Just as importantly, each of these views provides metrics by which we can consciously analyze and perfect what we are doing.
In future posts, we’re going to look at theme through the lenses of plot and character, which will help us see its more specific and explicit manifestations. But first we need to enter the subject through the doorway of theme itself.
And “theme itself” is perhaps best summed up by its simplest definition:
Theme is a unifying idea or subject, explored via recurring patterns and expanded through comparisons and contrasts.
Because theme often gets boxed into the narrow view of its being nothing more than “the moral of the story,” it’s helpful to also observe theme at work in different mediums.
Take music, for example. I’ve always considered music the “purest” form of storytelling. Music is sheer emotion, manifesting in what is sometimes not just a mental or imaginative experience, but also a physical experience. Music tells stories and conveys truths without even needing words.
French composer Pierre Schaeffer said:
The moment at which music reveals its true nature is contained in the ancient exercise of the theme with variations. The complete mystery of music is explained right there.
The same could be said for story. Although we parade it through various costumes of intellect, action, and sentiment, story—like all art—is ultimately an expression of theme. The plot and the characters are just window dressing, providing visual metaphors for the author’s underlying (sometimes subconscious) ideas. If those ideas ring with universal truth, it is ultimately the theme, more than the plot or the characters, that connects with readers.