Guest blogger Karen Keil presents her thoughts on theme.
One of the core concepts Larry Brooks writes about is “Theme.” If a concept is what the story is about, and the answer to the question, “What if?” the theme is what the story means, and answers, “So what?” or “What does it mean?” He suggests that theme is “analogous to health in our daily lives – the abundance of it vs. the lack of it defines how well we function.” (p. 121) He says that without strong thematic intentions, you have a sit com: literary junk food.
He suggests there is a continuum in terms of theme, from no theme (a la Seinfeld) through exploration (a la Cider House Rules) to completely thematic (a la C. S. Lewis.) I have to disagree with him on that point. First, if theme defines how well we function, then for Seinfeld to have been themeless (as he’s claiming) then Seinfeld would not have been able to function as a story and would not have been on the air for years. Secondly, the meaning of the story was that there is no meaning. Post modernists present that theme on a regular basis.
He suggests, finally, that the best way to include your theme is in your character arc, which concurs with what Orson Scott Card says about theme, which is that theme has to do with change and whether and how change is possible.
As I consider themes, I think of two things. The first is the music played during movies. It used to bother me that movie music was so repetitious, but the goal of the music is to tie the movie together and to evoke emotional responses to what is happening in screen. That’s what a theme does. It weaves in and out of the plot, pulling the plot and the character together into a cohesive whole. It is the part to which we have emotional connections. What is the song that plays through your words?
The second thing that came to mind is some discussions that took place in another group fairly regularly. Various members of the group felt it necessary to raise the issue of bringing homosexual, trans-sexual, and multi-racial characters into their stories. My goal here is not to discuss those issues, but merely to point out that an underlying theme that they were absolutely determined to include was diversity/tolerance, and their approach included all of the subtlety of a brick in the face. They moved beyond C.S. Lewis’s fully-themed, no apologies offered approach. He at least dressed Jesus up as a lion. They want everyone to be “naked” (even if they have clothes on.)
I’m going to suggest that the more controversial your theme, the more it needs to keep its clothes on, whether those clothes are metaphors or polite language. If, for example, the theme is (includes) diversity, rather than including all of the real-life groups in their naked glory, fantasy literature gives a writer a huge range of creatures who can represent those groups and explore the theme without the emotional baggage that nakedness tends to involve.
Part of the consideration with your theme is what you want to do to or with the reader with your theme. What is the emotional response sought. If you want people to be angry, a more naked theme is likely to produce the effect you desire. If you have a more positive emotion in mind, clothing your theme is probably a good idea.
Karen has been a library clerk, twice. She has worked for the same retail corporation twice, first as a credit solicitor and a security guard, and later as a glorified stock clerk and a jewelry salesperson. She has also been a community college instructor, a Bible study leader, a Toastmaster, and a member of the DAR. She splits her life between two homes: Erie, PA and Zephyrhills FL, caring for her father and her Shiba Inu,, Oh My Goodness Gracious! An enthusiastic learner, she enjoys reading, writing, photography, genealogy, birding, crafting, debating….