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The Elusive Butterfly of . . . Theme

2007 Anna Furtado


Anna Furtado

We have no difficulty talking about plot, character, or scene. These concepts are basic to our writing, and if we put some effort into it, no matter how new we are to the craft, we can usually grasp the general principles without too much trouble. However, bring up theme and many of us will look down at the ground, clear our throats, and scrub a toe into the ground.

I'm in that crowd. I'll admit it. When it comes to theme, I hope the teacher doesn't call on me! When I find a topic like this, I always figure that there are other people out there who struggle with the same questions I have, and that leads me to conclude that it would probably make a good column. In an effort to try to better understand theme, I've done a little research. What follows are some of the thoughts, ideas, and definitions I've gleaned in the process along with some conclusions of my own. I hope you'll find them helpful in your own writing life.

First of all, the theme we're talking about is very different from the theme of composition fame. In essays, the theme jumps out. It's usually clearly stated up front. Theme in fiction, however, is gossamer-like—or at least it should be. For a theme too clearly stated in a novel can quickly turn into preaching. The reader's reaction is likely to be that the author should get off the soapbox and just tell the story.

The reader should be virtually unaware of an underlying theme until near the end of the work—and realization should come softly, quietly. They may not even realize that they have just had a universal truth given to them in story form. If that's true, then the author has been masterful in imparting theme.

You may or may not be aware of your theme while you're writing—especially during a first draft. It may be better that way, so you don't get into that lecturing mode. But once that first draft is completed, it's a good practice to ask what the theme of the story is because once you've answered that question, it could be very helpful in strengthening your characters and in making the story much more dynamic as you go through your next round of edits.

What Is Your Theme?
So, what is your theme? Is it good versus evil? Or love conquers all? Is it why do good things happen to bad people—or bad things to good people? Perhaps it's an attempt to discover what would drive someone to kill. Or a study of when madness might actually be sanity. How about war is hell—or opportunistic—or one man's peace. Think the great philosophical questions, and you've probably got fodder for a theme in fiction.

One way to find your theme is to consider what makes you feel emotional about the story. As you write or re-read your first draft, notice if a particular scene makes you angry or sad or ecstatic. You may find the universal truth that permeates your story. But do you really need to find your theme? Some say it's not necessary, that your readers will find it whether you've identified it or not. Another way to look at it is that theme gives your readers an epiphany. How do you actually go about finding the theme in your writing? Some say it's best done by letting your mind wander—letting your subconscious find its way to the theme in your story. The thought is that if you try to be too cerebral about it, you may never identify your theme, although your readers may be able to do so.

Different Aspects of Theme
The Gotham Writers on-line site, in an article on theme, likens it to a container for your story. Like the glass that holds the wine.The underlying theme shapes everything that happens, including how the characters act and their responses to one another. The wine in the glass is compared to the story. It's all about the wine—but you wouldn't be able to enjoy the wine unless it was contained within the glass. The wine takes on the shape of the glass, but it is the wine, as it is the story, that is to be enjoyed.

Anton Chekhov said that the fiction writer doesn't need to solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly. Thus you only need to hint at a theme. It isn't necessarily required that you come up with an answer to a great question you may pose in your story. However, theme will give your story focus. The same story with a different theme will be a very different story, indeed. Instead of love conquers all, it could be what sacrifice is a person willing to endure for love. In the end, love may not endure, but the revelation from the process will show the reader a great truth. So, do you find a theme for your work before you start writing, or after you've finished? Search the 'Net and you'll discover opposing thoughts on the question.

Trying to work from a theme is not without pitfalls. An attempt to develop characters around a predetermined theme may make them cardboard and the narratives and dialogue could seem contrived. It's a very tricky thing to work from a theme.

Multiple Themes? Recurring Themes?
Multiple themes are even more difficult (called "thematic greediness" by one article referenced on-line). The author runs the risk of having a disjointed, uneven story, and it may become obvious that too may themes are being crammed into it. Consider saving those multiple themes for other stories.

It is possible to have more than one theme in a story, but the number must be limited and transitions must be smooth and transparent. If not, the author runs the risk of disconnecting with their audience. If that happens, the reader may just put the book down and never finish it. We want to avoid that at all costs.

Something else to consider: If you have trouble ending your story, or the ending seems contrived, finding your theme may help bring it to a happy (or sad), logical conclusion.

Patricia Highsmith is quoted at the Suite101 site ( as saying that (sometimes) an author uses a recurring theme or pattern in novels—a different story every time, using the same theme. Her point is that, if it's true, an author should be able to exploit the fact by repeating the theme deliberately. This is in juxtaposition to a statement that appears at the same site that states "themes cannot be sought after or strained, for they just appear."

While trolling the 'Net, I found an article, "How to Create a Theme for Your Book" by Marvin D. Cloud (, but the six steps to creating a theme that the author presents seem counterintuitive to creating a theme in your writing—especially if those who say that theme just needs to be allowed to happen, particularly during that first draft, are to be believed.

Whatever Works
So, do you need a preconceived theme or not? When it comes to theme, it may be that the rule should be whatever works for you. If theme is something you can plan and ponder without it having a negative effect on your work, then perhaps you have caught that bright, elusive butterfly. If not, then write from the heart and let the universal truth you are trying to express find you.

For more on theme, try the resources listed below.

Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card (Writer's Digest Books)
The Key by James N. Frey (Writer's Digest Books)
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (St. Martin's Press)
2006 Anna Furtado — Author of The Heart's Desire
Book One of The Briarcrest Chronicles

Finalist—Golden Crown Literary Society "Goldie" Awards 2005
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