Based on one or two responses I’ve had to the earlier articles in this sequence, some clarification may be required. That’s because many writers — possibly most writers — tackle writing fiction from a completely different angle than the one I am discussing and come upon the thing called ‘theme’ often unconsciously or apparently by accident. Some never come upon it at all: those writers can still have some success in commercial terms without it, but their work will tend not to have much longevity or wide appeal.
Wherever you find thematic elements, there you will also find reader appeal, longevity and acceptance by publishers. You don’t even have to have many of those elements to achieve those things — but obviously the more you have and the better presented they are throughout the work, the greater the likelihood of success in readership terms.
‘Theme’ is technically defined as a central topic discussed in a literary work. Stripped of its trappings, it’s just an idea. Like the idea that is central to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is ‘racism’. It seems inadequate to coldly state it like that though, doesn’t it?
The theme of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is… well, pride and prejudice, just as Tolstoy’s theme in War and Peace is contained the book’s title. The theme of Moby Dick is overriding, insane ambition; the theme of Great Expectations is infatuation. We could work our way through the entire opus of world literature and in each case reduce the work to a couple of words as a statement of theme. But don’t let this apparent ease of reduction fool you into thinking that this isn’t vitally important.
In fact, the ease with which we can do this tells us that the book, in each case, was a classic. It’s almost a litmus test. If we ask ‘What is this book’s theme?’ and we have to pause and say ‘Errrr….’ then the book has failed.
A successful work of fiction could be said to be a unique way of making a statement about a theme.
There isn’t any other book like Wuthering Heights, or 1984, or The Color Purple. They are single encapsulations of a thing that we call their ‘theme’. Yes, we can strip out the theme as a couple of words, but we can’t equate those words with the work.
We can talk about this thing in analytical language, in other words, listing themes off like pride, prejudice, ambition, infatuation, war, peace, and so on. Or those cold, almost scientific terms can be turned into aesthetic visions which move poetically from one imagination to the next through works that we call ‘fiction’ until they are replicated, understood, appreciated and shared by others.
Hard to get across the evils of racism by just stating them; far easier and more wide-reaching to understand them through reading To Kill a Mockingbird.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about it might be because you aren’t used to seeing themes in stories in a conscious way that can be talked about and highlighted. You might like Pride and Prejudice because of the dialogue and characters; you might appreciate To Kill a Mockingbird because of its evocation of a period in American history. Anything that you appreciate about a story is perfectly valid; none of this is meant to take anything away from you.
On the contrary, this is all about giving you something — hopefully something profound. I hope that by understanding what I am talking about you might start to see, or see more clearly, the light that shines through all successful works of literature.
‘What about my own work?’ you might ask. ‘I don’t sit down and say “OK, now I’m going to write about racism!” and produce a tale from an idea. It just doesn’t work like that!’
You’re right, it doesn’t.
Most writers, when asked ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ answer something along the lines of ‘They just come to me’. There seems to be some powerful force, residing just outside our conscious grasp, which inspires us to write fiction. The ancients located that force outside of themselves, personified it and called it a ‘muse’; modern psychology places it inside us but beyond our analytical grasp and calls it ‘the subconscious’. For many writers, it takes the shape of characters who appear from nowhere and develop 'a life of their own’, taking the writer on a journey; for others, a plot line appears and draws in every other needed element as it moves along. On the surface, the writing of fiction follows this pattern: something emerges from somewhere and takes shape somehow and then the writer jots it all down and has a story.
99% of the stories that make it onto paper or screens never get any further than that, though. The ones that do are the ones that are bound together by a single overriding idea or theme, to which every other element in the story is subservient. Sometimes the author is conscious of this theme; sometimes it is still largely a subliminal matter — but it’s there.
I’m not just talking about so-called ‘literary’ works, though of course literary works are jam-packed full of thematic elements — it’s what defines them as ‘literary’.
Take Star Wars for a non-literary example. There have been dozens and dozens of space opera, ray-gun-blasting, spaceship-flying, galactic sagas in the course of the last hundred years. Only a few have survived, and every one which has survived has done so because of some thematic element in it. Star Wars has not only survived, it has flourished and is still being ‘milked’ today by film after film, plus all the associated merchandise. Why? Because Star Wars is much heavier on the thematic elements than other works of a similar ilk — it not only has spaceships and ray guns and an evil galactic empire, it has Freudian psychological tension, Jungian archetypes and a quasi-religious framework. If you could somehow subtract those thematic factors from it, it would deflate into a two-dimensional Saturday matinee movie and be forgotten along with all the other two-dimensional stuff.
No inner conflict between father and son? It’s just good guy versus bad guy. No old man with a hidden heritage and a powerful secret weapon? It’s just another planet with another old guy. No mystical Force? It’s just more ray guns and monsters in space.
Same with other genres. Most of the problems associated with the field of fantasy literature, for example, are to do with the fact that they present all the trappings — farm boy on a quest to save the world from dark lord, swords, dragons etc etc — while being light on theme: so no one cares.
Themes make us care.
Stories without themes are like meals without wholesomeness, fast food places compared to decent restaurants. Yes, they ‘fill the belly’; but they do the body no good. If you want wholesome, healthy food, you go somewhere where care is taken about ingredients and the results are both delicious and nutritious; if you want a quick fix or cheap filler, you know where to find it.