Monday, March 22, 2010

Not Your English Teacher's Theme

In writing you can't help but trip over the idea of theme.

Wait! *grabbing your finger before you click away* Don't let the word theme scare you. I know it brings on flashbacks of high school English where you read "classics" that made you want to pull your hair out (House of the Seven Gables, anyone? Bo-ring). And then you had to BS your way though a 5 page essay on the theme when what you really wanted to write was: "I don't believe there is a theme to this book, but based on the seven pages describing a single house, if I had to choose one it would be the coming-of-age of a long-winded architect."

So moving past that book that I didn't like, the question for today is, "Do I *have* to have a theme in my writing?"

The short answer: Probably.

And here's the long answer: I never really gave too much thought to a theme in my stories. The very idea made me think of pompous people sitting at a coffee shop drinking overpriced lattes as they dissect books.

But then came this monster revising workshop I'm in the middle of. And Holly Lisle changed my whole attitude. To quote her: "Your theme is the central idea of the story that you’re demonstrating by writing your story. It is the philosophical and emotional foundation of your book. It’s why you’re writing the thing."

You mean I need to have more reason than I had a shiny concept idea and want to entertain others while living in my own fantasy world?

If you want something that moves people more than a billboard, then probably.

As I sat and really thought about it, I discovered that I had woven issues I from my own life through my characters and the conflict and challenges they faced. I found out what made my story personal, and in so doing, I found out why it mattered to me.

So forget pulling a story apart to find out what it has to say about world peace. In it's most bare bones, basic essence, theme is why it matters. And once you figure that out, you can tap into something powerful to engage and compel readers.

BUT, **warning** you don't want to beat your reader over the head with your theme. No one else may ever guess what your theme is, but if you've done a good job, they'll pull their own themes out of your stories.

If you want to delve more deeply into this idea, you might want to visit this blog post on The Power of Allegories.

Complete Aside: Now I'm tempted to read House of Seven Gables again, just to see if it really is as bad as I remember.


L.T. Elliot said...

I learned this about theme a while back and was surprised how much we inherently write our themes into story without knowing how we do it. Then, in revisions, we can expound on it or fit it together properly. But you're right, subtlty is best. ;)

Scathing Reviewer said...

your intro cracked me up. Too too true.

Kimberly said...

Aw heck. Here's hoping my WIP has a theme that's too subtle for even me to pick up on...

Great post!