Let’s talk about story theme.
I’m a college professor, so I know everyone’s eyes glazed over right now after that first sentence.
I know because I’ve experienced this in the classroom. But wait just a moment. You’ll be glad you did.
I think people roll their eyes when asked about the theme of a story because we’re taught in high school English class that themes are these broad ideas that we can’t connect with.
Good vs. Evil
Man vs Nature
Money is Evil
Coming of Age
Many stories fall into these brought categories, so these themes that are really just subjects, don’t tell us anything about the story.
A theme is more specific and deeper. One of my favorite literary short stories is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings” which is a magical realism story about an old man with huge wings who appears in this little fishing village. He’s tired, sickly, and has bugs in his feathers. Some of the town people think he’s an angel, but they’re not sure. A priest says that he’s not an angel because he doesn’t speak Latin. A husband and wife who find this creature end up putting him in a chicken coop and charge admission for others to view him. People taunt and poke him. The couple make a lot of money from showing off the angel, but they ignore him, shoo him away from their home when he walks in. They treat him like a nuisance. Eventually, one day, the old man is better and he flies away.
There are many themes to explore with this story. I always ask my students what question the story asks and what answer does it provide. One of the questions this story poses is: how do people react when they meet someone different than themselves?
Human nature is to separate, to create the other, to abuse and mistreat those who are different. The story shows us this by the way the characters behave toward the creature that they don’t understand.
Themes give us something to talk about and discuss. Do we see people behaving this way in our own lives? Yes, absolutely. People are quick to create an “us vs. them” dynamic. Human history is full of examples of this.
But that is not the only question the story poses. We can ask, how does society treat the elderly? Do we hide them away when they’re old and feeble and useless? Do we ignore them.
We can ask questions about greed and if humans are only interested in how others will benefit them. Will they use others selfishly if given the opportunity?
These questions are significant to the understanding of the story and of life in general. So, to understand the theme of a story, we have to understand the significant story question of the story. And there can be more than one.
Knowing the Theme of Your Story
Writers will often say that they don’t know the theme of their novel. They will say that there is no theme or that they didn’t write the novel to create an overall theme. It’s just a story.
They may not know they have a theme and they may not write their story around a theme, but they do have one. If the story is going to be satisfying, it must have a significant story question. It doesn’t matter if the story is a fiction novel or a memoir — though, I’d argue that you can’t write a memoir without a significant story question.
If you don’t know what the question is, fill in this blank:
My story tells the reader what it’s like to _______________________ (grow up an only child, live with an alcoholic parent, start a business, etc.).
For my novel, That Was Then, I would say, my story shows the reader what it’s like to be a mother who is facing death and wonder if she gave her daughters the roots they would need to be successful.
If you’re read the memoir, Educated about a young girl who faces horrible abuse and ends up going to some of the best colleges in the world, you might agree that the story question is: Can a kid with no formal education and an abusive family escape and build her own future and get educated?
The answer to that question is provided in the pages of the book.
Why Themes Are Important
Themes make the story. The difference between a memorable story and one that is just okay is that those that we can’t forget had a clear theme. They had a significant story question, and the story answered that question.
Themes help the reader connect with the story. The theme makes them think deeper and question things.
Some people say that themes teach a lesson. I don’t really agree with that. Sure, people might learn that it’s not nice to be mean to people who don’t look like them from reading “A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings”, but what it really does is makes us look in the mirror and ask, have I ever been guilty of that?
Was I accepting of the new kid in class or the new employee at work?
Are people generally bullies?
Excellent stories with strong story questions make us think. The story answers the question for us, but then we say, “hmm, is this true?”
I love theme. It’s one of my favorite story elements because without theme, it’s not really a story to me. If I finish a book and ask, what was this story really about and I draw a blank, I’m not happy.
Can it be just about love? Not really. What is the story saying about love? Maybe that love connects people together forever, even if life draws them apart (another theme for That Was Then).
Can it be about catching the bad guy? Not really. The cop caught the bad guy because . . . the story question might be, can a female police officer who was a spoiled daughter of a rich tech business owner be tough enough to find a serial killer no one could catch?
The story is not about catching a bad guy, but about potential, being underestimated, proving naysayers wrong, finding yourself, etc.
Readers connect with stories that are more than the plot written on the back cover of the book. Theme is the magic and the reason readers love books.
Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write a novel? Let started by downloading for free Julia Amante’s “Free Your Story” framework.