Theme and ‘Losing the Plot’

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 Co