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window of faces

How Much Is That Theme There in the Window?

By Lori L. Lake

Whenever I talk about theme, I am always reminded of Justice Stewart’s comment about defining hard-core pornography: "I know it when I see it." This describes my feelings about theme. I had individual conversations with six different authors and asked them to define theme. We discussed the topic at some length, and none of us could come up with an easy-to-understand definition, but we all agreed that we could see it when was there, and we missed it when it was gone.

What is this slippery word that people use, but no one seems to be able to define with confidence? It’s not like high school where our teachers instructed us to come up with a "theme" and write a paper composed of a topic sentence, three or four key points, and a conclusion. No, theme in fiction is an entirely different creation.

Theme is the underlying idea that runs throughout the novel or story. It can be seen and felt because of the author’s use of metaphor, tone, narrative voice, characters, plot, setting, and every other writing tool right down to allusions, allegory, irony, imagery, and symbols that appear.

Theme is composed of the central issue(s) around which the entire novel is structured. It's not just about the basic meaning of the work, but about something more complex. What does the arrangement of words—the construction of the piece, including specific details, images, and ideas—do to tell us something deeper? Under that plot, behind those characters, is there something profound being said about the state of the world, a particular society, a community, a culture? Margaret Atwood’s cautionary novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, tells the story of a woman who no longer has control of her life or her body. Her freedom and fate have been sacrificed to a totalitarian society, and her world has become stilted, authoritarian, and unpleasant for all. The theme? Inequality, sexual degradation, and unchecked power can lead an entire society down a road of pain and unhappiness. The story is powerful, not to mention harrowing.

Theme is so tightly wound in and around fictional elements—especially structure, narrative strategy, and plot—that you can hardly extricate those elements from one another to examine them individually. A simple definition of theme doesn’t explain well enough, so we’ll have to come at the topic from a variety of angles and hope to illuminate it that way. Author Rachel Simon says, "Theme is what the story is saying — definitively or speculatively — about humanity and the laws of the universe. Let's look at the difference between idea and theme. Idea is more about the content of the story. Theme is larger than that — more opinionated, more abstract, more along the lines of contemplating or illuminating the great principles of life." A major theme in a "heavy" literary work is an idea about the world that the author returns to repeatedly. It becomes one of the most important aspects of the work. This was certainly true of the Atwood novel mentioned above.

In children’s stories, the theme is often trumpeted loudly at the end so the kiddies can’t possibly miss it. In those simple grade-school stories and in folktales like Aesop’s Fables, the theme is literally announced: "The moral of the story is…" But in adult literature, theme encompasses a great deal more than a simple moral. In fact, the "morality" angle may very well be a shifting, moving thing as the characters of the story learn and grow—or refuse to learn and grow. How that occurs has to do with the author’s take on the world.

Consider, for instance, the lesbian dimestore "pulp" novels of the 1950s. Highly conflicted women expressed or agonized over their desires for other women, then went through a variety of tawdry experiences before most often coming to a very bad end. Or else they discovered their lesbian "tendencies" were juvenile and eventually found "true love" and fulfillment with a man.

Who read those books? Apparently women read the lion’s share. Setting aside the fact that most, if not all, of them were written by men, why would women read them? The theme was negative, relegating women’s emotional relationships with one another to the level of tragic, stupid, or inconsequential. The overall theme gracelessly communicated that lesbianism was wrong, that lesbians would never prosper without a man, and that only through conforming to societal expectations could a woman be successful, admirable, and truly content. Those novels were the only verification that "the love that dare not speak its name" even existed, so women did purchase and read the novels, probably causing further conflict and anguish.

Today those old novels read like cheap, unrealistic melodrama, but in the 1950s, the themes they espoused were quite powerful and were used by a culture attempting to keep women subordinate, especially those who had found some measure of independence during the war years of the 1940s.

This example is a good one in proving one other subtle point about theme: the lack of certain themes in a culture’s literature may be as telling as the themes that continually pop up. Perhaps that is one reason it’s so tough to get one’s hands around the topic; theme is wrapped up in a very complex web of attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs, some of which may be inaccurate.

The greatest and most enduring literature (the work of Shakespeare, James Baldwin, Alice Walker, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, etc.) reflects large, abstract principles of life. On the other end of the spectrum is fun-living, escapist writing that may merely celebrate topics such as comedy or horror or adventure or romance (the work of Janet Evanovich, Dean Koontz, Wilbur Smith, Danielle Steel among hundreds of others). The latter type of writing certainly shows us thematic elements (prevailing over tough odds, the unfairness of the world, individual v. a closed community, etc.), but the difference in impact between, as an example, a simple love story and Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea, is undeniable. The first uses one character’s life to particularize small themes of love and sexuality while the latter uses the old man, the sea, and the big fish to extrapolate over-arcing themes about people’s relationships to the world, to loss, to death, and to other meaty issues.

Still, even lightweight "beach" reading requires thematic underpinnings that are cohesive and integrated. Without that, a story feels like it has no heart and soul.

Have you ever read a book, seen a movie, or watched a TV show where the creator initially grabbed you—and then halfway through, it all went downhill and you ended up hating the story? Perhaps it began as a coming-of-age story, then inexplicably switched to a murder mystery or a horror story. If those disparate story lines don’t have a unified theme, the viewer/reader ends up feeling cheated and perhaps even confused. An example where the filmmaker succeeds admirably with this sort of shift is the film "Stand By Me" (taken from Stephen King’s novella, originally titled "The Body"). The coming-of-age story, which is set in a version of a Hero’s Journey, is masterfully coupled with a deeper theme about the unfairness of the world. The subtle theme—that one does not have to be an adult, or even be very old at all, to feel deeply—pervades the piece. Powerful forces can be setting in motion in childhood that carry over into adulthood. When the boys in the story finally get a glimpse of the dead boy’s body, it serves as a turning point in their lives. Ever after they are changed.

Another film that illuminates this point is "Field of Dreams." The vast majority of men with whom I’ve discussed the movie—though often unwilling or unable to elaborate why—have told me they felt that movie deeply, even to the point of being moved to tears. What they seem to be responding to is the theme: the painful separation from their fathers that many boys experience around the time of puberty and the intense desire to reconnect with the father in a world where emotions like sadness, need, and grief are soundly discouraged in men and boys. Generations of American men have grappled with this anguish, and "Field of Dreams," with its mythic and archetypal story of love and baseball, growth and absence communicates that in ways that touched millions of men—and women, too.

If a story fails to contain that sort of consistency of theme, and particularly if it doesn’t adhere to formulaic expectations of the genre, the reader’s experience can be seriously compromised. Often we hear people say that when they got to such-and-such a place in the story, they tossed the book aside because it was unrealistic or too far-fetched or just didn’t feel "true." Even though some are able to suspend disbelief and forge through to the end, dissatisfaction is likely to remain. When asked for details, they may say, "It was well-written, but I just couldn’t get into it." Pressed further, they may not be able to explain exactly why except to say, "It didn’t speak to me. I just didn’t like it." When this happens, chances are that the reader didn’t like the theme—or else the theme was a jumbled mess.

People read stories and novels for entertainment, for knowledge, and also to affirm their "take" on the world. You won’t find a lot of men reading the current crop of "Chick-Lit" since most men find that such novels don’t reflect their world. Conversely, few women read war-based techno-thrillers. The vast majority of straight people do not read gay and lesbian fiction. As disappointing as that is, most people tend to stick to what they feel comfortable with and don’t read stories that challenge their attitudes and beliefs.

So when a reader picks up a book, it is with certain expectations. Many readers love mysteries because through the sleuth’s actions, order is restored to a debauched world. If you were to read a book where the sleuth was murdered in the end by the despicable villains and those wrongdoers got away with it, you would feel cheated. At the same time, many veteran writers in the literary realm have built careers on subverting the expectations and themes of commonly prized types of novels. Virginia Woolf, Joyce Carol Oates, Don DeLillo, and Roland Barthes come to mind.

In their insightful book, Technique in Fiction, Macauley and Lanning write: "But the all-important thing about the first stage of any fiction is that the author makes certain promises there. A successful novel will bear out those promises. The author should be in full command of his conception, not drifting hopefully toward it. He may promise wit and precision in the analysis of human relations (as Margaret Drabble does at the start of The Ice Age), a striking view of desolation (as does Tim O’Brien with his list of the dead and how they were killed in Going After Cacciato), a surreal vision of life (as Franz Kafka does at the beginning of The Trial), or whatever other tenor the novel will have. In a certain sense, every beginning is (or should be) a symbol. On the strength of what the symbol promises, the reader commits himself to the story."

So how does a writer determine theme? ("How much is that theme there in the window?")  How do you know whether you actually have one that is consistent? In a perfect world, we would sit down to write and know we are writing about a particular theme: the changes a character goes through from Innocence to Knowledge/Adulthood, for instance; or themes of overcoming great obstacles in the face of mighty opposition from the culture. But this isn't usually the way it works. Though we may feel a burning desire to write, and we have ideas and issues and questions that we pour into our texts, most of the time we’ve got no clue what the theme of our work is at the outset. It’s important to note that if we try to ramrod a theme into the text at the get-go, we come off as preachy or didactic.

If you decide to explore a particular theme with an open mind, surprising—perhaps even amazing—results often come of it. If, on the other hand, you decide on your theme ahead of time and are intent on bending the characters and story to fit that specific theme, your story will most likely come off as flat and wooden, perhaps even boring.

Writers and teachers usually have no idea what themes will emerge, and because the topic is so difficult, theme is an element of fiction not usually addressed. But if you think of theme as a steady accumulation of detail, growing organically within the text as you write, then it can readily be seen in the pattern of events, narrative, point of view, and character evolution. By writing about a specific place, a specific plot, specific characters and their specific dilemmas, an author explores a problem or set of problems and arrives at a resolution of some sort. Whether the writer plans it or not, the story will display attitudes, ideas, and a worldview along with a sense of morality (or amorality). That display might be exactly how the writer sees the world, or it could be an exploration of the alternative: what if things were this way instead of how they are?

When I begin a new novel, I usually don’t know—or even think about—what the theme is. I start with a premise, a few characters, a plot, and I work from there. The overall theme and any number of subordinate themes that support the larger theme seem to grow naturally in the writing and rewriting as I fumble along without fully understanding it, perhaps only intuitively getting it. Most writers I’ve talked with have this same experience.

In her book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft (which I highly recommend), Janet Burroway says that in the moment you actually realize what your theme is, you have a "minor convulsion of understanding."

I like that image—a convulsion of understanding. This happened to me in writing my third book, Under The Gun. I suddenly realized, near the end, that one of the larger themes I was exploring had to do with the struggle for autonomy, separateness, and "rugged individualism" in the face of the need for the community, love, and support of other people. As I wrote the novel, I came to understand something I’d never realized before: that I believe people do not grow and change alone, in a vacuum. It is with and through other people that love and meaning and depth of caring have the most impact. My character, Dez Reilly, had to learn that. She had to step out from behind her protective shield (in more ways than one) and take chances. Looking back at my previous two books, I realized that the same theme permeated both of them. Eureka! A convulsion of understanding. All this time I was writing about a specific theme, and I wasn’t even aware of it until after the fact. (It may be interesting to note that the next book I wrote, Different Dress, had an entirely different theme!)

There can be more than one theme in a book. In fact, each character of import and every plot line may have multiple minor themes attached. Still, in a novel, the overall theme needs to be consistent—or else the reader will feel like your work is disconnected, choppy, or even bizarre, as though more than one writer were creating it. It really doesn’t matter when you identify the themes you are employing, so long as once you do, you attempt to strengthen, unify, and enhance that aspect of the writing. Do the events and characters work against the theme? Is the tone and language used supportive of your theme? Are the images, the narrative details, the allusions consistent? Some writers have an innate understanding of theme and never consider the topic on a conscious level at all. Those are the lucky writers who never mix metaphors and seem to be attuned to the feeling of a piece. Not all of us are that aware.

Perhaps the goal, then, is not to "handle" theme at all, but to identify it (perhaps even after the fact), and ensure that all the parts of your creation support it. The more firmly you, the author, understand your own ideas, prejudices, and beliefs, the more clearly and capably you will be able to handle theme and turn your novel into a cohesive narrative that "feels" true and complete and solid. Studying the structure and content of all sorts of writing, both commercial and literary, and discussing matters of theme with other writers are good ways to start noticing and identifying theme.

Theme is a critical part of any writer’s work, but there is a surprising dearth of clear writing about it. Many writers touch on the topic within larger works about craft and technique, but I haven’t been able to find an entire book devoted solely to theme. Even Ronald Tobias’s book, Theme and Strategy, isn’t so much about theme as about plot and narrative strategies. The most valuable resources I’ve found with useful discussions of theme are:

* Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft
by Janet Burroway

* Writing the Breakout Novel: Insider Advice for Taking your Fiction to the Next Level
by Donald Maass

* How to Write a DAMN Good Novel
By James N. Frey (he uses the term Premise, rather than Theme)

© Lori L. Lake, 2004
From her untitled book about novel writing, a work in progress.
Not for distribution or copying without the express permission of the author. If you have questions, comments, or divergent points of view, please drop Lori an email at Lori welcomes questions and comments.

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