Ciao, SEers. I’m going to round out my posts for the year with a discussion of literary elements and how they interact. There are probably as many opinions of the number of literary elements as there are authors who use them, but I’m going to focus on three in particular that work in tandem to strengthen a story—theme, subject, and symbolism.
Today, we’re going to talk about theme.
I’ve heard a lot of authors say “theme” is for literary fiction, not genre fiction, so they don’t consider it when they write. I’ve heard many others say they wait until they’re done with their story before even looking for their theme.
I maintain all fiction has a theme, and all authors have it in mind when they set out to tell a story (even if they don’t know it).
First, what is theme?
Theme (as it relates to fiction) is the ultimate message the writer wants to share with the reader. That’s it. People tend to complicate it and think it’s more complex or more high-brow (which is why some say theme is only for “literary” novels), but it really is that simple. It’s the point of the story in its most generalized terms.
Every story has a message, so every story has a theme. At their most basic, some examples are:
- romance says love conquers all
- legal fiction says crime doesn’t pay
- war stories say good always triumphs over evil
- sci-fi says humans are better than technology
If you can debate something, you can have that as a theme. If you’re looking for a theme to write about, consider headlines in the news:
- life sentence versus capital punishment
- NRA versus gun control
- pro-life versus pro-choice
- conservative versus liberal
It doesn’t matter what your stance is on these issues. It doesn’t even matter if you can prove one side right and the other wrong. Your stance on those issues becomes the theme of your story. For example, if you believe in capital punishment, your theme is justice above all. If you don’t believe in capital punishment, your theme is life is sacrosanct.
Let’s look at a popular use of theme in fiction. Take, for example, The Wizard of Oz. In its most general sense, the message the author is trying to impart is to always chase your heart’s desire. It’s a theme that could be portrayed in any number of genres in any number of ways. This isn’t about the vehicle through which you deliver your message. It’s merely about the message itself.
So, whatever you want your readers to come away believing (or at least thinking about), that is your theme. And in my following posts, we’ll discuss how theme relates to subject and symbolism.
Until then, do you believe you write a theme in every story? Do you think about theme before or during the writing process? Let’s talk about it.