What is Theme?: Deconstructing an Elusive Concept

What is Theme? | Are you struggling to understand what #theme is and how it works in your #story? I'm breaking down this confusing concept. You know what used to drive me insane? Theme. I hated it because I could never quite understand it. I would stress over it and research it obsessively but I could never get it to click for me. I’d think I had it, but then, nope. Theme was such an elusive concept.

That was until a week or so ago, when I finally had a breakthrough. (Cue metaphorical light bulb).

I realized I needed to change the way I was defining theme. Everyone kept saying that theme was “what the story is about.” Well what does that even mean? Isn’t the plot what the story’s about? It was just too easy to get confused, and it wasn’t working for me and my way of thinking. I needed something more specific.

After mulling over it, I finally had my aha moment. Here’s my new definition:

  • Theme: a thesis that the story sets out to prove.

Some of you probably winced at the word “thesis.” “How is this more helpful?” you ask. “Theses are confusing!” I used to think so too (God knows I struggled with them in college), but they’re actually pretty simple. Observe:

  • Thesis: a theory that is presented as a premise to be proved.

Any light bulbs going off yet? No? All right, well keep these things in mind as we explore theme more in-depth. Now into the fray!

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What a Theme is (And isn’t)

So, what is theme exactly? It’s a hard concept to grasp because it’s very subtle. So subtle that it’s invisible in your story. Your theme is what your story is saying about humanity–human nature, human behavior, what it means to be human. All that good stuff. It’s basically the “point” you’re trying to make. Some might call this the “lesson” or “moral.”

Now, you’ll often hear people say that the theme of X story was love, loyalty, betrayal, or something of the like. The problem is, these are not themes. I think that this misunderstanding is where a lot of the confusion lies. I know this is in part where I kept getting confused. A noun is not a theme. A theme is what you have to say about love or loyalty or betrayal. It’s very specific.

I love how screenwriter Brian McDonald puts it in his book Invisible Ink:

“Competition” is not a theme. A theme might be, “Competition is sometimes a necessary evil.” Or, “Competition leads to self-destruction.” Saying that your theme is competition is like saying your theme is “red.” It really says nothing at all.

Cue the light bulbs.

How Theme Works

Since the beginning of time, stories have been used to teach lessons. Think of Aesop’s fables, Grimm’s fairy tales, or Jesus’ parables in the Bible. Though we don’t realize it, when we read a story, we are unconsciously looking for guidance, advice, or a revelation about life. That’s why stories with themes resonate so strongly with readers. We get something deeper out of it than entertainment.

Your story’s theme is what you’re trying to “teach” people. But first off, you have to figure out what it is you’re trying to say in your story. What do you want to make readers think about? How do you want to change your reader’s perspective of the world? What do you have to say about humanity?

“But what if I don’t have anything to say?”

Nonsense! Everyone has something to say. Especially writers. You have something to say, you just haven’t found it yet.

Now, remember how I said I like to think of theme as your story’s thesis? This is where that comes into play. First you develop your thesis (your theory about humanity). For example, true love never fades. Now your goal is to set out to prove this to your readers through your story. I love this way of thinking so much more because not only does it explain what a theme is, but it shows you what to do with it. A thesis must be proven.

So how do you get your point across to your readers without sounding preachy? You show instead of tell. No one wants to be preached at. But everyone loves a good story. Show us your theme through the events of your story, and the actions and decisions of your characters. Everything in your story should support your theme, just as you would use evidence to support a thesis.

It’s the story’s job to show us the theme, not the theme’s job to tell us the story.” -Lisa Cron

This is why theme is so tricky. We’re implying our point rather than stating it outright. But this is so important to do! You want theme to be subtle, not in-your-face and clunky. Don’t worry that readers might not “get it.” Some readers might not see it. Others might see something different. And you know what? That’s okay! Art will be interpreted in different ways by different people, and that’s part of the beauty of it.

Don’t frustrate yourself too much over theme. It’s not easy, especially when you’re a new writer! Heck, I’ve been writing for years and it’s still something I struggle with. I know it’s a weak area for me, one I need to work on and improve. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it!

What are your thoughts on theme? Have you struggled with it in your stories?

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