Theme is one of the most difficult aspects of fiction to discuss. This is partly because there are so many different ways of looking at it…and because there is no one clear, simple definition that everybody agrees on. “The definition of theme” ranges from the simple and straightforward “The subject or topic of the piece” to the more obscure “the understanding that the author seeks to communicate through the work” or “a salient abstract idea that emerges from a literary work’s treatment of its subject matter” to the broad “theme is what the story means.”
Several of the web sites I looked at didn’t even try to come up with a definition; they just gave paragraph after paragraph of examples of things the writer thought were and were not themes. One had a list of “themes in the science fiction genre” that included things like “alternate history” and “generation ships” and “virtual reality,” none of which are anything like what I understand theme to be.
Not that I understand the concept of theme particularly well. It isn’t something I’ve ever needed to understand in order to write fiction; in fact, thinking too hard about theme during my writing process gets in my way. This isn’t true of every writer, by any means, but for me, it’s a subject that’s a lot safer to consider when I’m between books.
Still, I’ve always had a suspicion that if I could ever really get my arms around it, theme would be one more exceedingly useful way of looking at my work. So I keep poking at it periodically, in hopes of seeing how other people work with it and how I might adapt their methods to my own process.
Part of the problem is that the vast majority of writing about theme comes from literary analysts who aren’t themselves writers. This has always made me suspect that theme is one of those tools that is great for dissecting a story after it is written, but that may not be much help in getting the writing done. Nevertheless, there are writers who do start with theme (whatever they understand it to be), and who do find it a useful tool, so I keep looking at it.
The main thing I’ve taken away from all the various reading I’ve done on the subject is that theme is generally abstract to some significant degree. That means that “generation ships” and “faster-than-light space travel” aren’t themes, but “the future evolution of society” might be, and “loyalty and hatred” almost certainly is.
Most of the time, the versions of theme that make most sense to me are expressed one of three ways: as a one-sentence argument, as a one-word idea, or as a question. The one-sentence argument variety has always seemed to me the least useful to a writer, as it tends to be couched as a proposition to be demonstrated: “Pets should be treated nicely” or “Testing honesty builds character.” Laying out one’s theme this way seems to me to invite the author to “prove” it in the story, which in turn is just asking to turn the story into a sermon – and in the process, miss out on interesting characters and plot twists because they don’t prove the theme as stated.
The one-word idea – “loyalty” or “honor” or “integrity” – seems to me more useful because it invites the author to look at the theme from different angles: how one character demonstrates loyalty or honor, compared to another, or how different characters acquire or lose their honor or integrity. For me, though, the one-word theme is seldom obvious, even after I’ve written the entire book. This makes it of extremely limited use to me so far as writing is concerned.
That leaves the theme-as-question. I like this because it seems more open-ended than the other versions. “What question am I asking/examining in this story?” can be answered with something as abstract as “Which is more important, loyalty or personal integrity?” or with something as pointed as “What makes a family break down?” The temptation, though, is to make the question into something a little too specific, like “How does the hero defeat the dragon?” which gets right back to plot and away from theme.
Ultimately, though, I doubt that thinking about theme will ever do me much good up, because the concrete has more appeal for me than the abstract, at least when it comes to stories. The themes in my work arise from the stories themselves – from these particular characters and the exact obstacles they face and the various choices they make, which have everything to do with who they are and very little to do with the author trying to demonstrate or examine anything other than the characters.