Thinking About Theme, Part 1

Let me lead with a secret: The next book in the Red Sneaker book series will be on Theme (then Description and Setting, Conflict, and unless you think of something else, I’m done). Perhaps you’re questioning whether this sounds like the most exciting writing topic. I think it is–in fact, sometimes I think it’s the most exciting part of the whole process. Or perhaps you’re imagining you already know everything there is to know about Theme. Maybe you do–but I can tell you that I didn’t, which became abundantly clear as I started gathering my thoughts for this book, and I’ve written over thirty novels now.

Depending upon who your English teacher was, you may have the idea that theme is some deep, profound, secret meaning cryptically buried somewhere in a fictional or poetic text. I don’t think so, and I think Theme is rarely as simple or as didactic as what we are sometimes taught. I mean, maybe in Aesop’s fables, or in a parable (Pilgrim’s Progress, Animal Farm), but most novelists want to be somewhat subtler. Rightly so. Morals hammering readers over the head rarely have much impact. To me the best themes do not pound. Theme is best when it’s more like the brush of a feather, something that tickles readers’ brains just enough to get them thinking–but not enough to take them out of the story.

One of the best analogies I’ve read is this: theme is the container for your story.  Sort of like a cup, or a goblet.  It’s what holds all the other elements together and makes them even better than they might otherwise be.  And here’s the truth: the goblet may be completely unnoticed by some readers, but the drink is still better because the goblet is there.

Don’t think of Theme as some ponderous shroud only decoded by academics and critics, diehard dissertation writers who strap the story to a chair and beat the theme out, leaving it lifeless afterward. It’s not a game of Hide and Seek. It’s more like Sardines (if you don’t know the diff, Google it). You have the joy of discovery without the pain struggling for it. Because reading is not supposed to be a hair-shirt experience. The story itself should be a delight, and the theme is the lagniappe, the added bonus that gives it additional pleasure and makes the book linger in the reader’s memory long after the last page is turned. Like Harry Chapin said, “It’s got to be the going not the getting there that’s good.”

 

Have you ever finished a book and thought, That was nice, but so what? And a week later, you can’t even recall what it was about? That’s not the ticket to the bestseller list, much less the classics list. The best way to give your book added resonance is to underlie the conflict with a well-conceived theme. This is why War and Peace is more than just another war story, why A Tale of Two Cities is more than just another thriller.

Okay, so now that I’ve explained what Theme isn’t, you may be wondering what it is. Next week.

By the way, if I’m going to write a book on theme, I need a snazzy alliterative two-word title. And frankly, I got nothing. Can you suggest a title? I’ll give you credit and everything. Everything except royalties. Email your ideas to me: willbern@gmail.com. Any other suggestions for the book will be equally welcome.

The summer is fact approaching and I’ll be closing registrations for at least two of my writing retreats at the end of the month. Register before it’s too late: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

2 thoughts on “Thinking About Theme, Part 1”

  1. I’ll never forget finishing “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents.” I finished it and sat quietly for a moment, then I said to myself: wow. No wonder they lost their accents.

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