Playing the “theme” game

What is the theme of your novel?

The question strikes terror in the hearts of writers everywhere. “Why does my novel have to have a theme?”

Steady, now. You need to hear this. Theme is the underlying message your novel conveys. It’s the survival wisdom that we all instinctively seek when we seek stories.

You need theme. As an author, you can’t leave it out. Fiction without a theme, or with a confused theme that can’t be extracted from the muck, leaves us cold. Such stories are forgettable, at best. Theme is the marrow of the story, and we hunger for it.

Don’t believe me? You think that a theme in a story makes it a ham-handed morality tale? Okay, let’s look at a work that — I would say — lacks a discernible theme.

Limitless is a movie with a great science-fiction premise: a pill that makes you a genius (and who wouldn’t want to be a genius?).

Giving characters exactly what they think they want is a great way to create thematically powerful work. The trailer looks like this is a movie that will really “say” something, doesn’t it?

But it doesn’t. The main character takes the pills, becomes a genius… and spends the rest of the movie trying to elude baddies and find more pills. He succeeds in the end. Because the pills helped him. He’s not even an especially good guy.

The end.

So what’s the point? There is no point. There was no inner trait or value that the guy possessed that enabled him to succeed. There’s no lesson, no survival wisdom, that I can take away. The film is entertaining in parts, but by the end, I felt like I’d only seen the surface of something hollow.

Good news

There’s no excuse for leaving theme unaddressed in your writing, because theme is easy.

It’s practically a game. Once you’ve finished reading the book or watching the movie (or writing your draft), just ask two questions:

1) Who won?

(Did the main character triumph? Or not so much? In a thriller or horror work, the winners are probably the characters who are still standing. In a romance, if the couple finally gets together, they win.)

2) Why?

(That is: what trait, characteristic, moral value, or skill did the winners possess that enabled them to win?)


(I adapted these two questions from questions asked by Robert McKee about “controlling idea” in his master work STORY. He used a lot more words.)

The answers to these two questions constitute the theme of your work. Let’s see some examples.

Dawn of the Dead (2004): Who would think a zombie movie could have such a powerful theme? Everyone who clings to old affections, romantic or familial, dies in this movie. The only survivors make it to the end credits by heartlessly weeding the bitten out of their ranks, and showing no mercy. The obvious theme: To survive, we must be ruthless.

(Interestingly, the survivors are all killed off in segments blended into the final credits, so that ice-cold, razor-sharp theme is sadly erased.)

Side note: Themes need not be nice. They just need to be there. (Imagine that I wrote a long, long essay about the moral value of art and the importance of artistic freedom and posted it about here.)

In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, a much-loved, yet still underrated, film), Indiana Jones and Marion survive to the end because he chooses to abandon pursuit of the Ark, and protects her instead. Theme: Our survival depends not on chasing the quest, but on caring for each other.

Side note: Themes need not be nice… but they can be.

In The Hunger Games (the book; I missed the movie), Katniss and Peeta survive not because Katniss is such a badass, but because she learned to express her affection for him, persuading the audience to spare them both. Theme: Our survival depends not on skills, weapons, or brutality, but on having the courage to express our deepest emotions.

Really?

Yeah, really! Why do you think the book is so popular?

Themes can be negative, or cautionary, too. Especially if nobody gets out of the story alive.

Ishmael is the only survivor of Moby Dick, but I’d say that’s because he’s the POV character and Melville didn’t know how to kill him off. Captain Ahab’s pursuit of that whale led to the death of his entire crew, creating a theme we all know: Obsession can destroy you and everyone around you.

Romeo & Juliet don’t make it out alive, because of the feud between their families. This is another easy one: The need for revenge can claim that which you value most.

Or: Vendetta is pernicious.

Or even: Get over your grudge, or somebody innocent may have to pay.

The wording matters less than the sentiment. The sentiment always comes through, though, once you answer the two questions.

Theme is one of the most surprising elements of fiction, and the theme game is addicting. And just wait until you ask those two little questions about your own work!

1) Who won?

2) Why?

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