Confession: I struggled to come up with a title for this post, because I knew the second you read “theme” you’d remember your high school literature classes and all their boringness and run away.
“I want you to write . . . a theeeme!”
Dun dun DUNNN!
Come back! This won’t be boring! Know how I know?
Because I got the idea whilst re-reading this book.
This book is one I like to revisit to make sure I’m staying on top of my game. Last night, I reached the chapter about theme, and it made me nervous because it’s kind of a cloudy concept, oddly. I suspect there are as many definitions of theme as there are people in the world.
But it doesn’t need to be scary or complicated. Simply put, it’s the central point or argument of the story. I’ll defer to Mr. Wendig for a more detailed explanation.
Every story’s trying to say something. It’s trying to beam an idea, a message, into the minds of the readers. In this way, every story is an argument. It’s the writer making a case. It’s the writer saying, “All life is suffering.” Or “Man will be undone by his prideful reach.” Or “Love blows.” Or, “If you dance with the Devil Wombat, you get cornholed by the Devil Wombat.” This argument is the story’s theme.
I paired themes with memes in the title, and that was 100% intentional. Because memes can help us further understand themes.
Anyone who’s been on the internet for more than an hour is familiar with memes. They’re pictures that become so common they’re recognizable instantly, and people put their own captions on them.
You have to use the right type of meme for the message, else the interweb trolls will unceremoniously toss you into the Google volcano and allow the banana-for-scale gods to feast on your soul like sweet Nutella nectar.
For example, this toddler clutching a fistful of sand is known as Success Kid.
He comes in handy when you experience some measure of good fortune in your life.
A caption on this meme is on the theme of any success is worth celebrating. Compare that to the First World Problems meme, which comes in handy for complaining about things that aren’t really problems.
Now, you can’t mix and match memes and their messages.
The Success Kid message isn’t what the First World Problem meme is about, so it makes no sense. The underlying theme of First World Problems (though it’s not written out anywhere) is our privileged problems really aren’t that bad. So the message needs to match that.
I’d guess matching words to theme is something most writers instinctively do already (as writing comes from our experiences), but sometimes things can get off track. For example, if your theme is nonviolence can win the battle, your character can’t go around punching everyone and then say he learned his lesson and maybe punching wasn’t the way to go (okay, it’s a bad example). The point is if something feels “off” in a story, mismatched narrative and theme could be the culprit.
If the idea of theme is still a little confusing, I have good news – you don’t necessarily have to be aware of your story’s themes as you’re writing. Again, I’ll defer to Chuck on this point.
The theme needn’t be something the writer is explicitly aware of – it may be an unconscious argument, a message that has crept into the work like a virus capable of overwriting narrative DNA, like a freaky dwarven stalker hiding in your panty drawers and getting his greasy Norseman stink all over your undergarments. A writer can engineer the theme, building it into the work. Or a writer can unearth it, discovering its tendrils after the work is written.
Of course, because of the mismatch problem, if the theme becomes apparent after writing the story, sometimes rewrites have to happen to get everything in line (betas are helpful for pointing out this kind of thing).
The theme is what makes your story memorable because it’s weaved throughout the narrative. As Chuck says, “A story with a theme is a story with a point.” Readers may understand the theme you intentionally lay out. Or they may extrapolate something you didn’t even know was there. That’s the beauty of subtext and allowing the reader to bring their own stories to the work.
Before I leave you with a question, I highly recommend picking up Chuck Wendig’s book that I’ve been referencing throughout this post. It’s great info presented in a funny way.
Now, for the question: Are you aware of your stories’ themes as you write, or do they emerge during the process?