Recently I launched a feature in the Inner Circle Writers’ Group on Facebook called ‘Thematic Thursday’. The idea was and is to give a venue for the discussion of that all important element in great fiction: Theme.
Many writers immediately got the right idea and did exactly that, pointing out what their work was about underneath the plot or storyline, and getting into a conversation with others about deep and meaningful things, which was the intention. Some, however, struggled to escape from simply writing a blurb for their book, or a short summary of the story. I quickly realised that some writers have trouble with this notion of ‘theme’ — they seem to have difficulty separating it out from the ‘plot’. When asked ‘What is the story about?’, they straight away launch into a scene-by-scene description of the narrative, rather than exploring the underlying concepts which a successful story must tap into into if it is to stand out.
That’s more than a huge shame: it is actually a misunderstanding which, apart from some lucky accident, will probably sever them from any possibility of making lasting connections with readers.
Stories lacking in theme tend to be ephemeral. It’s hard, therefore, to even find examples of a ‘theme-less’ story, because they simply vanish from the mind — there is nothing in them to make any kind of lasting impression.
Even serialised stories like soap operas or sit-coms on television have episodes which resonate with theme on some level — in fact, those TV shows which we remember and love tend to be the ones which were constructed around a theme or two. We might not recollect every episode, but we reflect back on the show with admiration and affection precisely because it tapped into something deeper than the moving images on the screen in front of us.
Even now, though, some writers will be reading this thinking ‘What is he on about? What is “theme”?’
Probably the best way to illustrate what a theme is and what makes it different to the plot in any work of fiction is to list out lots of examples until the point sinks in. When it does sink in, it can utterly transform what a writer is achieving when he or she writes a piece of fiction. Writers who experience this epiphany suddenly find their eyes have been opened to what they were doing — or trying to do — as writers in the first place. They often return to their writing reinvigorated and revitalised, ready to inject existing work with new levels of meaning and energy.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at eight famous works of fiction of various kinds and establish what their themes are, as opposed to their storylines. In so doing, we can learn even more about stories than we thought possible:
Jane Austen’s Emma:
Theme: Self-delusion being shattered
Plot as metaphor of theme: A young woman’s delusory self-image betrays itself and is held accountable.
Storyline: Wealthy Emma Woodhouse embroils herself in various match-making conspiracies until one apparently innocent incident brings her own self-importance and lack of awareness of others to the fore and her whole picture of life is broken.
Roles of archetypal characters: Emma moves away from being a Shadow Protagonist (a protagonist-like figure who makes wrong moral choices) under the influence of an Emergent Warrior archetype.
Star Wars (original trilogy)
Theme: Dark and light sides of human nature are intertwined
Plot as metaphor of theme: An antagonist’s dark empire extends into the mind of the protagonist through his father.
Storyline: A galaxy-wide dictatorship seeks ultimate physical and spiritual domination but is thwarted when a young farmer is able to summon enough moral strength to challenge accepted outcomes.
Roles of archetypal characters: Antagonist (Emperor Palpatine) uses Shadow Protagonist (Darth Vader) to try to overturn Protagonist (Luke Skywalker), who receives help from an Emergent Warrior (Han Solo) and Submerged Companion (Princess Leia) as well as Comic Companions (C-Threepio and R2-D2) and Wise Old Figures (Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda).
E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India
Theme: The meaning of Life
Plot as metaphor of theme: The relationship of humanity to meaning is explored through the metaphor of British/Indian relations during the Raj.
Storyline: Adela Quested and elderly companion Mrs. Moore come to India to tour its mysteries but fall under the sway of the Marabar Caves — Mrs. Moore is driven to despair and an early death, while Adela becomes deluded and accuses an Indian man of attacking her, with resultant legal confrontations and upheaval.
Roles of archetypal characters: A Submerged Companion and Wise Old Figure are ironically unable to be rescued by an Emergent Warrior and Comic Companion.
Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations
Theme: Self-delusion and its human consequences
Plot as metaphor of theme: Working class boy is bemused and bewildered by the promise of upper-class wealth and sex.
Storyline: Young orphan blacksmith’s apprentice Pip is beguiled by a self-deluded and twisted harridan into an infatuation with an attractive young woman, and, when an opportunity to gain the wealth and prestige necessary to make the woman his partner arises, Pip succumbs to an almost complete self-delusion of his own, broken at the end by the intrusion of harsh reality.
Roles of archetypal characters: A Protagonist is drawn into becoming a Shadow Protagonist by a dark Submerged Companion, and is only barely rescued by the intervention of a Comic Companion (Herbert) and a partly repentant Wise Old Figure (Jaggers).
J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Theme: Creation inevitably leads to a Fall and loss — but Redemption exists
Plot as metaphor of theme: A complex world containing many created artefacts of various kinds passes away on several levels.
Storyline: Middle-earth, whose interwoven and multi-layered history and geography reveals many elements of ‘sub-creation’, falls under threat from a Dark Lord intent on using his own self-made artefact to dominate all others, but a combined effort results in his ultimate failure, even though that failure implicitly dooms much else that is good in the world.
Roles of archetypal characters: A Wise Old Figure (Gandalf) instigates a narrative involving Protagonists, Comic Companions, Submerged Companions, Emergent Warriors and Shadow Protagonists, eventually bringing down a powerful Antagonist.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird
Theme: Ignorant prejudice and growing up
Plot as metaphor of theme: A racist environment envelops and almost swallows up a naive young child.
Storyline: A woman reflects on her childhood as a young girl growing up in the racist South of America.
Roles of archetypal characters: A Wise Old Figure (Atticus) tries to enlighten a Submerged Companion (Scout) and Protagonist (Jem) accompanied by a Comic Companion (Dill) about the evils of an Antagonist (Ewell) and his Shadows but they are rescued from final danger by an Emergent Warrior (Boo Radley).
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre
Theme: Self-worth and self-discovery in a hostile environment; the nature of love
Plot as metaphor of theme: A young orphan girl faces hardship as she grows up isolated, which tests her inner mettle and perceptions of truth.
Storyline: Jane Eyre, orphaned and virtually outcast, is employed by the wealthy landowner Rochester but discovers dark secrets and is led into an even deeper wilderness before finding a resolution that matches her spirit.
Roles of archetypal characters: A Protagonist relegated to the role of Submerged Companion struggles not to fall into orbit as a mere Shadow before being rescued by an Emergent Warrior (Rochester).
Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Captain America and the Winter Soldier
Theme: Dark and light sides of human nature are intertwined
Plot as metaphor of theme: Evil Nazi group HYDRA infiltrates American super-spy organisation SHIELD over the long-term and it looks impossible to separate them until a man out of his time brings a fresh perspective.
Storyline: Captain America, a superhero from the 1940s, tries to get his bearings in a modern world full of corruption and deceit, finally re-establishing his principles and extending them to redeem others.
Roles of archetypal characters: An Emergent Warrior is reborn under the guidance of a Wise Old Figure (Nick Fury) and with the help of a Submerged Companion (Black Widow) so that he is able to defeat a Shadow Protagonist (Winter Soldier) and overcome the threat of an Antagonist (HYDRA).
There's a whole lot more that could be said about this - and you may have thought of some examples of your own - including the depths of symbolism to which it opens the door, but I hope the above helps to clarify the difference —and the power of the difference — between ‘plot’ and ‘theme’. If you mix the two up, and call the plot something it isn’t, you’re effectively missing out on some profound truths about what fiction is and what it can do; if you separate them out, you can build stories that are loved by many and which can stand the test of time.
For more, get my book How Stories Really Work.