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 are legit—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.
Thematic Principle: What Is It?
The simplest way of expressing theme is via the thematic principle. The thematic principle may be a word, or it may be a sentence. Either way, your thematic principle is the “single, unifying idea” we talked about. It your story’s representation and exploration of a universal Truth.
This Truth can take many forms:
- It may prove a commonly held Truth (“wars are evil”), or it may be an attempt to disprove a Truth (“wars are a necessary evil”).
- It may tackle the deepest questions of human existence (“why are we here?”), or explore our most deeply held values (“love is the most important thing”).
- It may offer answers, either implicitly or explicitly (“love conquers all”), or it may choose only to raise questions (“does love conquer all?”).
- It may focus on moral dilemmas (“is it okay to protect your own life at the expense of someone else’s?”), or it may simply highlight certain patterns (“life in the inner city”).
- It may choose to comment (“Nazi Germany was immoral”), or it may attempt only to observe (“events of the Holocaust”).
- It may choose a Truth that is high-minded (“life has meaning”), or it may be mundane (“high school is hard”).
- It may be optimistic (“life is wonderful”), or it may be pessimistic (“humans are selfish”).
The one thing the thematic principle can’t be is vague. At first glance, this may seem an easily disprovable suggestion, since you can probably name great stories that seem pretty foggy in the thematic area. This is because excellent themes are rarely blatant or “on the nose.” But if a story works, you can bet that however subtle its themes may be, they are neither vague nor accidental.
There is a huge difference between a vague theme, told by an author who was never quite sure what the theme was, versus a subtle theme that permeates every part of a story so completely it becomes almost invisible via its very prominence.
When I first investigated one of my favorite movies, John Sturges’s classic The Great Escape, I initially found it difficult to sum up a unifying thematic principle in any explicit statement. My go-to metric for finding a story’s theme starts with identifying the Truth at the heart of the protagonist’s arc, then looking for mirroring statements in every aspect of the story. But in some stories, like The Great Escape, the themes aren’t so easily discovered (more on that in a minute).
How Your Thematic Principle Affects Every Part of Your Story
Although condensing a story into a pithy “thematic principle” can sometimes seem overly simplistic, this is exactly what makes it a valuable tool. Your story’s essence, boiled down to its most concise statement, can become the guiding principle for your entire project.
Once you have discovered what your story is about on a thematic level, you will be able to gut check every single scene, every character encounter, every bit of incidental symbolism. The more cohesive every single piece of your story becomes, the more powerful your theme becomes—and the more you can rely on overwhelming subtlety, via your plot and character arcs, rather than falling into heavy-handed moralizing.
As we’ve discussed previously, theme is rarely born in solitude. Theme ideas grow apace with plot ideas and character ideas. This means you do not have to identify your thematic principle in isolation. Identifying the point of your plot and the change in your characters will provide big flashing arrows pointing straight at your thematic principle. (We’ll be talking about both of these in future posts.)
For today, however, I do want to talk about the thematic principle in isolation, specifically ways you can identify theme in stories where the plot and character arcs don’t immediately seem to point to a unifying idea or Truth.
Let’s look back at the movie I mentioned earlier.
The Great Escape is a true story, chronicling the tremendous effort of Allied prisoners to escape a German POW camp. Despite its huge cast, it is less a character story than an event story. So what’s the thematic principle? What Truth is this story sharing beyond that of a remarkable (if largely failed) historical gambit?
How to Identify a Story’s Thematic Principle
On its surface, The Great Escape may seem to reflect the reason writers often feel theme should not be approached consciously. This is because when theme is done exceptionally well, it is often difficult for the audience to verbally identify it. (Can you verbally express, off the top of your head, the theme of great musical compositions such as Aaron Copland’s Rodeo or Gustave Holst’s The Planets?) However, it’s important to note this difficulty for us as readers arises from the seamlessness of the story’s themes. It rarely, if ever, arises from the author’s ignorance of those themes.
Regardless whether you are trying to identify theme as the reader/viewer of someone else’s stories or as the author of your own story, one of the first places you should look is the ending. The ending always tells you what a story is trying to be about. (Some stories get there organically and successfully; others try to present thematic arguments in their closing scenes that, in fact, are only weakly supported by the preceding story.) However subtle or blatant, the Climactic Moment is the thematic point of the story, with the Resolution scene(s) usually offering some sort of explanatory context.
Once you’ve nailed down a concrete idea from a story’s closing scenes, take a look back through the preceding story. Is that same idea mirrored throughout? If not, it could be the story fails to work thematically. Or it could be you simply failed to choose the correct concrete definition for the story’s abstract theme. In that case, try again.
I have come to define the theme of The Great Escape as “the indomitable human spirit.” The story ends with most of the escaped POWs either dead or returned to captivity. On the surface, that doesn’t seem very indomitable. But two particular scenes prove what the story is about.
One is the response of the senior British officer to James Garner’s query about the worth of their gambit:
That depends on your point of view, Hendley.
This suggestion is immediately reinforced by the return of Steve McQueen’s character. After facing down the dejected camp commander (who is on his way to a court-martial), McQueen ends the movie with a cocky grin. His defiant strut back to solitary confinement is played against the jaunty but poignant closing score. The scene emphatically underlines the idea that this ending is not to be seen as a defeat.
When this theorized thematic principle is then played back against everything that happens previously in the plot and in the character development, we can then see how it resonates in every scene—but in such a subtle way that the power is magnified. The theme is shown instead of told.
One final thing to note is that (as previously mentioned) theme is a slippery thing. A story’s thematic premise can often be summed up in more than one way. Some people will look at The Great Escape and phrase its thematic premise differently. Usually, however, this variety just offers differing viewpoints of the same principle. For example, one person’s “indomitable human spirit” might be another person’s “virtuous patriotism.”
Thematic principle is the essence of theme. As the central idea which all other interpretations of a story’s theme either refer to or evolve from, it is a powerful place from which to begin planning and/or identifying your story’s theme.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How would you sum up your story’s thematic principle? Tell me in the comments!
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