The Importance of Theme

I was reading the August issue of The Writer the other day, (which, by the way, has at least three really good articles in it) and found an article written by Paola Corso on integrating theme and story. Corso opens the article with the sad truth that when asked “what their short story is about, writers often recite a chronology of events because they equate plot with theme.” Corso goes on to say that it isn’t the “who, what, where and when but the why that gives meaning and elevates your writing to a thematic level.”

The biggest problem with integrating themes into your story is there is always that fine line between suggesting a theme, something for the reader to think about, and preaching to the reader, which is tedious and quick to make a reader put your book down. So, as Corso expounds, writers need to “Show, not tell. Write with direction, not an agenda. This will allow theme to evolve out of the story elements–characters, conflict, setting, images, etc.–so that it’s earned rather than contrived.” The following points describe Corso’s suggestions to help theme emerge from your story:

  1. Embed your theme in characters. Convey your ideas, pose your questions, through how your characters think, look, act, speak, their names, etc. Flesh them out, give them meaning.
  2. Make your theme talk. Dialogue! It’s not just characters talking to one another, dialogue has its purpose just as setting and conflict do; dialogue should help the story along, and subsequently, your theme. Let the theme/dialogue come naturally through conflict rather than shoving words down your character’s throat.
  3. Establish a setting or atmosphere to help convey theme. Wuthering Heights, anyone? The setting was a character in that book; its tumultuous weather shouted the theme just as Cathy and Heathcliff’s characterizations did.
  4. Weave theme into your conflict. Character struggle raises thematic questions. What does the character want? What is the significance? What will they do to get what they want, and how does this affect the theme of the story? What obstacles must they overcome?
  5. Use strong, efficient symbols–the building blocks of theme. Use the objects in your story to represent something larger than itself. For instance, in my current project, my main character is afraid of horses. But why is that? She is known as a great rider, despite her involvement with her father’s accident. Answering that question, on an emotional and psychological level, opens a theme to the story.
  6. Give your character theme-based actions. Literal or symbolic, subtle or grand, actions help put the theme in motion.
  7. Put discoveries and epiphanies to work. Allow your characters to reflect on the previous points. Let them question why they did what they did, or why they think their antagonist, etc, did what they did. Ask who they are, what was said, what was not said, what have they done? Make sure to keep them specific to each character, you don’t want everyone coming to the same conclusion/understanding, it’s unnatural.