The Skill List Project: Theme

This is another post in The Skill List Project: an attempt to list all the skills involved in writing and selling fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy. Last time, I foolishly suggested we should look at Theme. Grumble, grumble…but I guess we have to deal with it sometime, so let’s go.

Message? What Message?

When we talk about a story’s theme, there’s a temptation to ask, “What does this story say?” This is a legacy from our high school English classes…or rather, from our vague memories of high school English classes, which may be a whole lot different from what our teachers were trying to get at. Anyway, a lot of people (especially novice writers) think that the only way a story can have a theme is if the story has a message.

Now a lot of good stories do have “messages” of one sort or another. To pick the first example that comes to mind, The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs delivers the message, “Be careful what you wish for; you might receive it.” Some online versions of the story actually start with that statement…but I suspect the line is a recent insertion by someone who couldn’t just let the story stand on its own. (The line wasn’t there when I first read the story, and I’d never heard the saying until well into the 1980′s. Star Trek aficionados will remember that in “Amok Time”, Spock used a much wordier phrase to say the same thing. I believe that’s because “Be careful what you wish for” just wasn’t around back then. But I digress.)

The point is that having a message doesn’t automatically make a story bad. On the other hand, we’ve all read stories that were ruined by sermonizing: where the action suddenly stopped so the author could deliver a diatribe. I’ll pause for a moment while you reflect on your favorite horrible examples (*cough* “This is John Galt speaking” *cough*). Such writing has given Theme a bad name, and has led many a reader into vehement kneejerk dislike of anything that smacks of “message”.

This is unfortunate. Science fiction has a long tradition of “message” stories, particularly cautionary tales (often known as “If This Goes On” stories). As for fantasy, the genre has deep roots in “teaching tales” such as fables, myths, and folklore. Saying that a story can’t have a message divorces SF from its heritage; it also says that writers shouldn’t write passionately when something scares or outrages them.

Besides, it’s impossible to write a story that doesn’t send some kind of message. If the good guys beat the bad guys, that implies that Good (at least occasionally) triumphs over Evil. If the good guys lose, the message is that being Good doesn’t guarantee victory. If there are no good guys or bad guys, but only shades of grey, that in itself is another message.

So I see nothing wrong with message stories—they often say things that need saying. Yes, you run the risk of alienating readers who don’t agree with your views, or who are hypersensitive to any sort of “preachiness”; but that’s a chance you have to take when there’s something you want to say. Better to speak boldly than force yourself to stay quiet.

But I Don’t *Have* Anything to Say!

Novice writers often have the opposite difficulty: they don’t want to think about Theme because they don’t have a message that’s burning to be shouted from the rooftops. “Why do I have to say something? I just want to write stories.”

That’s fine as a starting position—you may not have anything you desperately want to get off your chest. But stories should be about things that matter: love, or loneliness, or the price of success, or friendship, or suffering, or guilt. If you don’t dig into the stuff of life, your story is worse than trivial; it’s irrelevant. SF has its share of superficial stories (e.g. science fiction “puzzle” tales, where clever troubleshooters solve purely intellectual problems). However, those tend to be very short. If a story goes beyond a few pages, it has to have emotional resonance.

So perhaps you tell a love story. You don’t have to decide on some “message” about love; besides, any explicit pronouncement would be trite. But you can write about a love between two particular people to the best of your ability. Is it going to add up to some nice neat message? Probably not. But your theme is love and your story simply says, “Love is sometimes like this.”

Or maybe you write about sorrow. Or war. Or the nature of justice. These are topics that can’t be glibly encapsulated. You can’t possibly say anything about them that hasn’t been said before, but you can still address them seriously: set up a scenario and show how the theme plays out in some specific case. You don’t start out with some statement you want to make—you simply explore and see what happens. If a specific message emerges, then great, you’ve discovered something that was waiting in your heart; if not, you’ve still looked at something worthy of examination.

Or maybe, when you start writing, you don’t have a theme at all. The seed of your story could be a character, or a setting, or some clever twist of plot. You don’t have to decide in advance how you’ll give your story some depth…but before you finish the last draft, your story should be about something.

This applies even if you’re writing a comedy or a gung-ho action adventure. “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was blissfully about exuberance. Blah-blah-blah Nazism, blah-blah-blah God, blah-blah-blah Marion…that stuff was just window dressing. The theme of “Raiders” was the feeling of being twelve years old and imagining yourself as a hero. That’s an awesome theme; I’ll put it up against “Man’s Inhumanity to Man” any old day.

And what are the skills you need to deal with Theme? The skills of taking something seriously (even when it’s exuberance) and of not flinching wherever it takes you…the skills of not settling for clichés and of not getting lost in the minutiae of plot/dialogue/description, but keeping your eye on things that matter. It’s much much easier said than done; but the effort is worth it. Make your stories about something, not just people running around doing meaningless stuff.

Time for the Closing Theme

There’s plenty more that could be said about theme, but I’ll let you all hash it out in the comments section. And now that I’ve dealt with one intimidating subject, next time I guess we’ll look at another: symbolism. (Be brave, be brave…)

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  1. 1. T.L. Bodine

    I’ve found that I am much more theme-oriented than most of the people in my writing circles, I suspect because of my “lit major” heritage. But I can’t finish a book without knowing what it’s “about,” and sometimes I agonize over “what does this passage SAY!” if the plot goes in a direction that makes a statement I did not intend.

    But in my opinion, you’re right — all good books should be about *something*. Otherwise they just feel hollow. The stories that stand the test of time are those that speak to us about universal experiences, lived by loveable and deeply flawed people.

  2. 2. Shakatany

    I tend to keep in mind what Louis B Mayer supposedly said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union!”

    It’s just that I hate being hit over the head with the message; subtlety is much preferred though it requires a far more delicate touch.

  3. 3. Elf M. Sternberg

    I started out writing bad fanfic and smut, and realized that even those stories are fairly meaningless if you don’t have something to say. I went through a tragic didactic period, but I grew out of that, too. I’m happy to say that my worked has morphed into something I find fun and meaningful.

    (If you want to read really bad didactic writing, Iain M. Banks is letting his inner didact run free in “Transition”, and it’s really sad to see.)

    The odd thing is, when you read “literature” literature the meaning is often explicit and laid out by some Voice of the Author. To take two examples I’ve read recently, Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” is pretty explicit about finding happiness by not chasing it too hard, and James Salter’s short story collection is blatant “life sucks” and his characters frequently say so.

    No all literature is like that, to be fair. Nicholson Baker’s work is so deep into metaphor his characters not only don’t have to say anything, but if they did it would ruin his often surrealistic point.

  4. 4. Rocky

    Is the primary way to evoke theme through atmosphere, with it occasionally also indirectly or directly addressed via dialogue, characterization, exposition, etc.

  5. 5. James Alan Gardner

    Theme isn’t just atmosphere, it’s the oxygen the story breathes and the soil in which it grows. For example, in a love story, love affects who the characters are, and everything they do. Sure, they’ll probably talk about love, but that’s not nearly as powerful as *acting* from love.

    But perhaps love is too obvious. Take something like the theme of loyalty in “The Lord of the Rings”. Loyalty is damned near everywhere: noble loyalty, misplaced loyalty, disloyalty, fatal-unto-death loyalty, save-you-when-nothing-else-will loyalty, etc., etc. I can’t remember if anyone ever actually makes a speech about loyalty, but many characters and scenes are *completely* about loyalty in all its many facets. It’s integral to the plot in all kinds of ways; at various points, the action totally hinges on different types of loyalty or lack thereof. No one ever *preaches* about loyalty, but the book comes back to it again and again, not just atmospherically but deep in the marrow of everything that happens.

    Your theme(s) should inform all aspects of your story, over and over. That doesn’t mean beating the reader over the head with some message, but it does mean making the theme(s) inextricable from the story. —Jim

  6. 6. Mary

    The grave danger of trying to write a theme is that it’s a wonderful chance to show off the depths of your shallowness by what you think is a a profound theme. . . .

    This is a very serious danger if you want to be original in your theme. Some writers seem to believe that they really have come up with a novel solution to problems that people have broken their hearts over for millenia.

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Author Information

James Alan Gardner

James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.

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