- Part One
What is it? What does it do? How do you
by Megan Kerans
Theme is more than a word thrown out by your
high school English teacher. Theme is a key component of your
story. If plot makes up the bones of your story, then theme is
the DNA. Theme may be the most difficult craft concept for writers
to understand and use effectively without sounding "preachy."
If it's so hard,
Probably everyone reading this has a favorite
book on the keeper shelf that "spoke to them." For some,
the impact of a powerful story message is life changing. Most
writers dream of penning a work whose impact leaves a lasting
impression on its readers, more than a wonderful, message they
take away. That's theme! When used correctly with great characters,
a solid plot, strong dialogue and the many other craft components,
theme makes a good book a great book.
What is Theme?
In the most basic explanation, theme is
the main idea. But that definition really doesn't do theme
justice. Lots of ideas exist, plans to build a super spaceship
or create a recipe for the world's best chocolate cake. Those
are ideas, but are they themes? No.
Theme isn't any old idea. Theme is
a universal truth or concept the majority of the world
believes is true or wants to be true. Some examples are:
Never Judge A Book By Its Cover
Good Always Triumphs Over Evil
My built-in Apple dictionary says theme is,
"An idea that reoccurs in or pervades a work of art or literature."
Theme is different than the actions (plot) your character takes.
Actions happen once; afterwards based on the results, your character
takes a new action. Below are two examples of actions:
Elizabeth walks into her office building for
her first day at her new job.
No matter how many times she goes to work during your story, there
will never be another first day at this job and each trip into
her office will never be 100% identical. A theme in contrast will
always be the same exact message/universal truth and will show
itself again and again.
Quinn pulled the trigger, but the rifle jammed.
He threw the weapon aside, fired his pistol and shot the attacker
charging towards him.
While in the above scenario, Quinn fired a gun more than once,
the circumstances under which he acted changed, as did the results.
So, his firing the gun is an action, not a theme.
If we put together the two explanations they
tells us, theme is a universal truth the repeats throughout a
story. Good, except the definition still isn't complete. Jason
Surrell in Screenplay by Disney gives us the missing piece. Theme
answers the question, "What does the story mean?" The
lesson is what the character and audience learn as a result of
the character's journey and actions.
Remember Luke Skywalker in the original Star
Wars movie? He learns to fight like Jedi, rescues a princess,
gets stuck in a garbage bin, watches his mentor murdered, and
finally trusts his Jedi skills and uses them instead of his x-wing
fighter's computer to destroy the Death Star. Through all those
actions he learns to believe in something bigger and in himself.
The belief he learns is the theme.
Finding lost treasure, saving the princess,
or getting the right job is the plot of the story. Theme is what
the characters and audience take away from the journey.
A final definition
A universal truth repeated through a story
and the message or lesson learned by the characters and readers.
When we break this down into the craft elements
of a story. Plot is what happens. Character is the who it happens
to. And theme is the why/ lesson learned by the character and
Part Two explores what themes exist and what they do for your
Confused? Still have questions? Or just want
to talk and put forth your own ideas about theme? Post to the
Roses' Colored Glasses Yahoo Group where I and other Roses will
be happy to chat and answer questions. Don't be shy! We love to