Why Theme Matters in Writing

This past summer, I went to the movie theater and watched Ant-Man and the Wasp. I remember thinking that it was a fun way to pass two hours. It came out in July – only three months ago – yet ask me to remember anything else about it and I’d have to think for a minute. I know there was action and cool scenes of things changing sizes…but as to what actually happened – it’s a bit of a blank. Again, it’s only been three months. Ant-Man and the Wasp is a terrific example of what happens when stories lacking theme, or execute that theme in a really superficial way.

For those who don’t know, a theme can be defined as the main idea or underlying message of a story. It is the critical belief that the author is trying to convey to the reader. Often, it is a commentary on a big idea like life, love, or death. A well chosen theme can transcend barriers like time, culture, and geography. For instance, many fables and folktales have different versions across country lines, despite the overall story being very similar. One of the earliest known versions of Cinderella is actually from China.

Theme adds longevity to stories, helps burn them into the reader/audience’s mind and resonate at a deeper emotional level. So, with this in mind: How do we write theme well?

Let your Passion be your Guide

A theme is a very personal take on a generic subjects. Everyone experiences life – but in their own way. Themes can be very classic stuff like Good vs. Evil and Individual vs. Society, but I’m going to be that someone born in India will have a very different take on Individual vs. Society than someone born in Norway.

Beauty and the Beast theme
Beauty and the Beast has a very basic but true theme, which has allowed the story to be retold countless times – each with its own unique spin.

When choosing a theme, let your passion be your guide. Ask yourself why you’re writing this particular story. What is driving you to finish, to complete this tale for you/the world to read? The answer to this question is usually the theme. For example, when I wrote The Dreamcatchers, I had a host of questions I wanted to explore, one of which being the relationship between bully and bullied. As I write Monsters Among Us now, I’m much more focused on telling a story about the importance of objective truth.

If you’re too concerned about checking boxes, writing a story tailored to suit an audience’s expectations rather than telling a narrative, your theme will likely be lost or become so generic that it might as well not be there.

Write the theme with your heart and then worry about fixing it later with your head. Be personal in your writing and your theme will insert itself, sometimes in ways you did not originally suspect.

Too much Attention turns Theme Preachy

“So,” you ask, “should I start out writing with the goal of communicating my theme?”

Absolutely not.

The goal of every storyteller should be this: Tell a tale that’s worth its audience’s time. If you put too much focus on the theme, then it could override other arguably more important aspects of your story such as characters and plot. It is always easy to tell when writing theme goes wrong.

The story in question feels less like a narrative and more like a vehicle for the author to preach to the audience. While this type of writing works well in religious texts, most people aren’t looking for it in their entertainment. Preaching also tends to open a story up to new criticism.

Let’s talk about the film Paul, which was written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. For the record, I don’t think it’s completely terrible. It has a good cast, some funny jokes, and neat effects. That said, holy hell is it not subtle in its theme.

Pegg is an atheist and, if you didn’t know that before watching the movie, it becomes very apparent in the script. Pegg seems to be using Paul as a vehicle to point out what he sees as the stupidity of religion, namely how God can be easily disproved by the existence of aliens.

It works right up you think wait – what? How exactly does the existence of aliens disprove God? I’m not saying I’m a believer/non-believer, but I will state that you have to make a better argument than that. Pegg seems to be belittling religious people for relying on stupid, overly simple arguments to shape their worldview whilst providing one of his own in response.

The film is largely cruel in its depictions of religious people, showing them either as oppressed/frustrated women or backward country hicks. Our main characters aren’t supposed to be geniuses but are presented as “smart” for knowing that aliens disprove God and religion.

Paul theme
The religious type according to Paul.

Pegg was too concerned with his commentary and not enough with his characters, and Paul suffers greatly from this. It is a textbook example of how theme can override other story elements if the writer is not careful.

Striking the Right Balance

Okay, so you don’t want to focus primarily on theme but you want to make it reaches your final draft. How can you do this? The answer is simple but arduous: Edit, edit, and edit some more. Theme is tricky and unless you’re a veteran writer you will probably struggle with it in your initial draft. Even Stephen King doesn’t publish his first copy.

If it’s a novel you’re writing, you should check back through the story after you’ve written it to see how your themes (longer stories can have more than one) play out, and whether any are in direct conflict with each other. If you’re writing a short story, you should be striving for that singular emotional effect (a.k.a. one central theme), and aware of how your story is handling it.

Good alpha/beta readers can also make the difference when it comes to theme. Your audience will also be able to tell you if:

  1. They didn’t get it
  2. They got it too much (preachy)

My advice can only be this: Write a story from the heart that has “you” in it in some form, you’ll find that your theme shows up just fine. And, if worst comes to worst, be prepared to edit.

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