Let’s say you’ve written a story, or perhaps a whole range of stories, and never considered this thing called ‘theme’ before. Is all lost?
No. Because chances are that, if you are passionate about writing fiction, some of these thematic things have crept into your work below even your own radar.
I’ve often taken a short story that I have read over the last couple of years and written to its author commenting on what I considered to be its best qualities, the things which made it ‘work’ as a piece of fiction — in other words, the thematics in it. More often than not, the writer is embarrassed and confesses that he or she ‘never thought of those things at all’ but just wrote ‘the first thing that came into their head.’ That doesn’t matter and it certainly doesn’t invalidate what ended up being there for the reader. If a case can be argued intelligently for something existing in a piece of prose or a poem, the chances are that thing is there, whether it was consciously put there by its author or not.
So what is happening here?
The world of ideas is somehow intruding into the world of sequential thought and the writer, acting as its channel, is putting things down in word form, resulting in what we call a ‘story’. The writer might think it was all in his or her head, because where else would it be? But almost every writer I’ve dealt with admits that there is something mysterious, not quite fully analytical, going on when a story is written.
This isn’t meant to be mystical. The result is that stories in which the central idea has come through so strongly that every element works for it and channels it across to the reader so that he or she is in no doubt at the end as to what the story is ‘about’ are the most successful stories. Note I said ‘at the end’: if the reader becomes too aware of the idea as the story is being read, the illusion is somewhat spoiled: it feels like the author trying to browbeat or preach. Aldous Huxley comes to mind as an example; many of his tales are thinly disguised essays. Most readers like the mode of communication known as ‘fiction’ and tend to be colder towards the mode known as ‘essays’ — which is what a story can start to become if the central idea peeps through a little too much before the end.
No, a fiction writer is like a stage illusionist: he or she performs prestidigitation and misdirection and shouldn’t pull the cloth away from the final reveal until we are close to the end. Only once we grasp the whole story should we grasp the whole idea: only when Bottom is reunited with his friends and everyone is married at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or when Macbeth is slain, or when Frodo leaves Middle-earth or when Scout meets Boo Radley should we go ‘Ah! I get it!’
Learning to be a writer of successful fiction is a lot like training to be a stage magician: you have to know what you’re trying to reveal before you know properly how to conceal it.