Writing Question: Themes?

For many writers a theme is a nebulous concept, a concept best left to academia where one can write a term paper on the color of autumn leaves appearing on page 397 of a 500-page novel. But for others, a consciously selected theme guides their entire work. To wit, we pose these related questions to Odyssey graduates:

At what point in your writing process do you begin to think about themes? How do you work themes into your stories? Do you feel themes are an important part of your stories? What themes have you used in your writing? Which have resonated particularly well with you and which have not resonated at all? Why?

Justin Howe, Class of 2005

There’s a bit of a split here for me.

On one hand I want to say I find theme as I write. On the other hand there are only so many themes I encounter that I shouldn’t be surprised when I find them:  death by obsession, encountering the unknown and being changed by it, friendship/mentorship, and humanity’s unwarranted good opinion of itself.

But starting from a theme or settling on one too soon even from among these I recognize as “mine” has resulted in stories dead before they get very far on the page. Characters, imagery, and situations work much better as sparks to my process. Somewhere in the third or fourth draft I’ll then say, “Look at that. Another death by obsession story. Is it different from my others? Can it be made more so?”

Michael J. DeLuca, Class of 2005

I love theme. I make no secret.

And I think my love of theme may actually come from those horrible English classes. Maybe my English teachers were better, I dunno. Maybe I am a glutton for punishment. I can’t deny I hated having the red pickle dish in Ethan Frome ground into my face for a week as a symbol for desire. On the other hand, my favorite parts of Moby Dick were the passages where Ahab rages about how the whale is a mask for God. “If his chest had been a cannon, he would have shot his heart upon it.” Gives me chills every time.

I try to write all my stories from theme. When I have something solid and profound to talk about, I always feel more passionate about the story I’m telling, like I have a legitimate reason to write it. And when I do the opposite–when I start a story based on an image or something that strikes me as a flashy or distinct novum without some underlying significance, I start to feel like I’m writing empty fluff. And I hit a wall. This happened to me (and is still happening) with this novella I’ve been writing forever, “Centaurs Robbing a Train.” The idea seemed so cool I had to write it, but the effort of shoehorning a theme onto it has caused me no end of wrong turns. Then again, even when I do start with a solid theme, often it becomes transformed in the course of the story and then I have to rejigger it in revisions so the story fits the new theme.

I have to admit I still chafe a little at Jeanne’s definition–the distillation of a story’s “message” to a single sentence always feels like an oversimplification to me. Not that it isn’t a worthy and often illuminating exercise to force yourself to couch your story’s theme in that form, with a subject, a verb and an object–I do it often when I’m revising and it has the effect of making obvious the gap between the theme I started from and the one I ended up writing to. I also find it a great way to clarify the structure of a story, to show what’s essential and what isn’t. But I would argue that most stories of any complexity have many more themes than can fit in a simple sentence. Otherwise English teachers wouldn’t expect five-page essays about them.

I often get myself into trouble wanting to spend too much time on theme and symbols, and I end up producing that kind of story that feels too obviously constructed to illuminate a theme:  a didactic story, an allegory or fable. This sort of speaks to what Susan W. is talking about–the challenge of keeping it subtle, of leaving some of the work up to the reader. I do like an open ending, though they are indeed delicate and hard to pull off. I’ve found that most of the themes I want to write about lend themselves to that kind of ending, because the topics are too big and complex to have a simple answer. For example, the story I just finished, after I’d written a rough draft and thought about it awhile, I realized was about how people build up elaborate artifices around the concept of death as a means for dealing with/avoiding dealing with loss. Is it better to look death in the face, or to try to rationalize it away? I have no answer for that. People have been doing it both ways since the dawn of time. I tried to get that across in my ending. Don’t know if it worked.

Gerald Warfield, Class of 2010

I think it is helpful, in discussions of theme, to acknowledge that we are talking about an abstraction. The “theme” of a story exists at a background level to a story somewhat analogous to the way “deep structure” (as posited by Noam Chomsky) underlies a sentence. A better analogy is in tonal music where the ultimate deep structure of a piece is the root chord of the tonality in which the piece is written.

To say that the deep structure of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is a c-minor triad is hardly exciting, and we gain nothing by listening to a c-minor triad for half an hour (the length of the symphony). But that is to confuse background and foreground (surface) structures. To actually “play” a c-minor triad–to create that sound–is to immediately place the sound on a foreground level and to evaluate it as such. In a sense, none of the underlying structures of a piece of music “really” exist except as representations of how we understand the piece. As foreground, they are probably trivial; as background they may be ubiquitous and pervade the piece at many different levels of generality. Beethoven’s Fifth is a particularly good example of this.

And, of course, it goes without saying that background structures are hardly unique. Some say, in literature, that there are a finite number of themes or stories. Banal and obvious in themselves, they are the mortar with which the elements of a piece of music or a novel or a short story are bound.

Amy says that the theme of her novella is  “Faith will set you free,” but does that mean that now I don’t have to read her book? Of course not. Yet the sense of this statement helped her to make decisions throughout the writing process and will help the reader to see relationships within the work at many different levels of generality.

C-minor is not very interesting, but Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is quite interesting. “Faith will set you free” is a bit ho-hum, but I’m willing to bet that Amy’s novella is quite interesting.

Eileen Wiedbrauk, Class of 2010

I like Gerald’s explanation of theme as background and structure. There’s no metaphor or comparison I can make that would alter or add to the meaning I gleaned from what he posted.

I hesitate to pin all the blame on high-school English class when it comes to distaste of theme. To paraphrase from a talk by novelist Tod Goldberg: “No one walks into a bookstore and says they’re looking for a good theme.”

Theme is a secondary tool in writing the story, and it’s a secondary tool in reading the story. On a practical level, I think it’s less about distaste (my opinion), and more about keeping your primary tools close at hand, and your secondary tools on a shelf where they’re out of the way until you need them.

Abby Goldsmith, Class of 2004

I can look back at my work and analyze it for themes, but I generally can’t pin down the theme while the story is still in its embryonic and fetus stages.

I’ve noticed a few themes that recur in my work, for better or worse. A big one is escaping an oppressive or indifferent family (often in a dull small town or rural area) for an adventurous or promising future. Gee, I wonder where that comes from …

Another one that I’ve covered more than once is betrayal by a trusted authority or family figure. I guess this can be summed up as “trust.” I wrote a very dark fantasy story where the protagonist’s cousin and roommate was raping and killing little girls. I wrote a clone story where the mother clone is selling her children as slaves. And in my novel series, the oppressive mind readers earn the respect and admiration of my protagonist Thomas before betraying him. There’s a double betrayal there, because Thomas also earned the respect and admiration of his friends and ends up betraying them, losing their trust.

I also cover manipulation by a trusted authority or family figure. I guess this theme is simply “freedom.” I love to write about protagonists who are given special privileges, only to realize that the privileges come with lots of strings attached, mostly insidious and nearly impossible to detect or get rid of. I finished Book 4 of my Torth series, and Thomas is still trying to figure out the last string that the Torth glued to him in Book 1. And *both* of my next epic series (the ones I’ve outlined) involve characters who are manipulated by their parents, by the government, or by a trusted teacher. They grow as characters by 1) becoming aware of the manipulation, 2) learning why and who is manipulating them, and 3) figuring out how to survive with as much freedom as possible. This might mean having to kill one’s own father or mother. And, uh … gee, I wonder where *that* comes from!

Writing is a safe outlet for violent tendencies.

I see these themes in authors who’ve influenced me. Stephen King delightfully exposes the dark, oppressive underbelly of small town rural life. George R. R. Martin is all about children being manipulated, controlled, or betrayed by authority figures. One of the main themes in the Wheel of Time series is about escaping insidious or well-meaning manipulation from the established authorities.

Susan Shell Winston, Class of 2006

I wonder why theme is such a fearsome topic to most writers today.  I notice many of us deny we consider theme important to writing any story. And it’s become very unpopular among us to admit we know what the themes in our stories are. Perhaps our distaste for the topic comes from horrid memories of high school English classes telling us we have to search for the deep meanings in a story instead of reading to enjoy it.

Perhaps I have trouble understanding most writers’ fear of Theme with a capital T, because, to me, my definition of theme is the reason I write stories. I always start out with a question or issue that I don’t know how to answer, then have my story and my characters enact the consequences of “answering” it from their opposing points of view.

The theme that is the central core of my current novel is why do we believe so easily what we are told is true by leaders of our group (is it news or propaganda?), by religious leaders, by friends, or by our interpretation of our own past experiences?, etc., and why do we so fervently disbelieve what another group believes is true instead?  How do we choose what story to believe, and why?  How do some myths spread and become gospel?  How does something that really happened get dismissed and disbelieved in as nothing but a myth, fairy tale, or lie?

And how does a character who realizes that the general populace, like sheep, wants someone else to answer their questions, tell them what is true, use that knowledge to manipulate them and get what he wants? How does another character (like a Cassandra with a power to hear people’s inner thoughts and know when they’re lying) convince other people to believe her “truth” instead? I’m not starting out my novel knowing the answers to these questions. Some of my characters will be certain they do know what’s true–and so will be easily deceived. One or two of my characters will probably be as unsure as I am–unfortunately this usually makes them weaker in action because they’re weaker in taking sides. 😉  By the end of the novel, I may have a “theme” that could be stated more as a statement than a question, but I may not. Perhaps the best way to describe what I’ll be going for in this novel is through Robert Frost’s poem “The Secret”:

          We dance round in a ring and suppose,
But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.

If there is a secret, if there is any truth at all to my characters’ opposing beliefs, they’ll dance around and fight about it, but more than likely, no one character will get closer to knowing what the Truth really is than any other character will. My other novels have had similar themes. One, a quest fantasy had the characters going off on a wild goose chase looking for a non-existent Sauron devil to blame for the war destroying their world. Instead of looking for someone else to blame, they needed to return to their own world they left behind them full of hate and prejudice and opposing belief systems to find their true enemy–or as Walt Kelly’s Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.” In another novel I explored the consequences of believing your side good, your enemy’s side “evil.”  To me, there is no deep secret good or evil truth sitting in the middle of our dances, there are only the perceptions of the different sides calling the beliefs of the other side evil or misguided and their own beliefs good and true.

As I was thinking about this question of theme this morning, and wondering why so many writers deny theme is an important element of their stories, I wondered what the difference really is between theme and character motivation. No writer would ever deny that motivation is a fundamental element in creating a character and having them act in accordance with their belief systems and past experiences. I’m having trouble thinking of a character motivation that can’t be expressed as a theme. Greed, Anger, betrayal, joy, sorrow, willingness to manipulate others–or knowing you have the ability to and being tempted to do so, etc. If we think of character motivations as similar to themes (or mini-themes) driving our characters, then perhaps theme would not be such a fearsome word to us. A simple theme, a one-act plot problem with a character driven by one motivation, greed, hate, etc., can be enough for a short story. For a novel, perhaps it’s our choice of [a particular cluster of characters and motivations] all related to a central question or issue that gives us a sense at the end of having an overarching theme. To me, I think that has to be inherent in any story. Or else we have chaos instead of a plot.

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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