We can try to sum up our journey into the land of Theme in the following way:
Most fiction that is written is two-dimensional. It is based around the simple question ‘What happens next?’ and it tends to produce linear stories: one thing happens, then another thing happens. This ‘one direction engine’ has a certain amount of horsepower and can pull readers along if they require no more than that kind of ‘flat’ storytelling. Young children’s fiction, for example, tends to be of this kind, as does soap opera or some simpler forms of generic fiction.
Most of the fiction that editors see submitted to them is also of this kind.
I’m reminded of the story of the worm in the two-dimensional universe. This is a flat plane, consisting of only two dimensions, length and width. There is no such thing as the third dimension of depth in this reality — worms crawl along in the flatness of the world, point to point, never considering that there might be another way of looking at things. One day, one of the worms bumps into a pole, sticking up from the planar existence in which he has lived. Hesitantly, he crawls up it and sees that there is an entirely new perspective to be had on life, hitherto entirely unsuspected: he can look around and see for miles. He has discovered the third dimension.
Naturally, anyone who can present a third dimension to an otherwise flat world is going to stand out and be noticed. Some will find the whole thing too incredible and claim that this dimension is an insane illusion; some will be confused and unable to grasp it at all. A few will want to investigate and find themselves climbing poles of their own. One thing is sure, though: the worm up the pole will make an impression.
The same principle applies with fiction. Linear stories are all very well and form the mainstay of many genres and publications — but stories which contain depth tend to be the ones which stand out.
Nursery rhymes and early childhood tales can serve as an example. The Grimm Brothers’ story of Hansel and Gretel coming across a house made of gingerbread but being tricked by a witch is a ‘Then this happened, then this happened…’ kind of tale — its only depth comes from the reverse trick and sense of justice that occurs at the end. Cinderella similarly is a tale of woe in which one bad thing happens after another until there is a reversal and a chance of justice and romance. Little Red Riding Hood is also heading for disaster until the woodcutter enters to restore order and balance.
As children grow older, they encounter themes of a slightly more complex nature. Children’s literature is full of the same kind of restored order and justice, with clear ‘good’ and ‘bad’ figures so that the audience isn’t too confused or worried — but as things progress, some nuances enter in. In Philippa Pearce’s classic children’s tale Tom’s Midnight Garden, Tom is a modern boy living under quarantine with his aunt and uncle in a city flat, part of a converted building that was a country house during the 1880s–1890s. At night, an old clock strikes thirteen and he finds himself in an old garden where he meets a girl playmate. The simple good/bad dichotomy melts into something both sadder and more beautiful as he comes to realise what’s happening.
Similarly, in the children’s TV classic Catweazle, an 11th century wizard finds himself transported through time to the modern day. There are no ‘villains’ as such, and the thematic elements of the story are mainly comic, to do with Catweazle’s misunderstanding of modern technology — but things get deeper as the boy whom the wizard befriends, Carrot, realises that there is such a thing as magic and that Catweazle isn’t quite the fool that most of his adventures portray him as.
Had Pearce’s book about Tom just told of innocent playing in a garden, it would have been lessened in poetic power; had Catweazle just been the adventures of a wizard misplaced in time it would have not passed the test of time. Both pieces of fiction linger in the heart and mind because they tap into the ‘third dimension’ accessible to fiction: Theme. They are ‘about’ a set of events in each case; but they are also ‘about’ human nature, the human condition, wonder, beauty and sadness.
Every time that we read a story with thematic elements, to some extent we journey ‘up the pole’, even if only a little way. The task for any writer who wants to succeed in creating work which appeals and lasts is to make poles for readers to climb.