What exactly is theme? Why does it matter? How do you even write it?
This is yet another of those rehashing-stuff-I've-mentioned-or-written-about-before posts. Yet every time you look at something, you get a new insight. An apple appears red at first; but then you can tell it's darker in some places and lighter in others. Then you get past the simple look and find that the inside isn't really red at all. And it tastes good, too.
My point is, theme is one of the most important parts of fiction for the Christian fiction writer, and must be studied, therefore, more than once. You get new stuff out of it with each fresh look.
What is theme?
Theme is simply the meaning in the story you write. This is not to be confused with the subcategory of theme, which I've nicknamed story-with-a-theme, partners to story-with-a-message and story-with-a-faith. (Rather confusing on my part, sorry.) In this post, however, theme simply means the meaning in a story and encompasses all three categories.
Now, theme is an essential part of every story. Without theme, a story is meaningless. It's fluff. It has no impact on your life. It's escapism. Not bad in itself, but why waste your time on a meaningless story when you could be doing something that's actually constructive?
Theme, however, is a big subject. There's a multitude of different ideas about how to do theme. I divide it into three aforementioned categories: theme (a "moral of the story"), message (a more concealed Christian theme, such as in allegories and Narnia), and faith (the kind of story in which faith in God is an integral part: Bryan Davis and Christopher Hopper's books are examples of this).
In this post, however, I'll address the action and abandon the analytics. (Alliteration. Hah!) Before you read much further, however, make sure you're in the right place. Your writing isn't yours, remember. It's God's. If you're trying to manufacture a theme without Him, and all truth is in Him, then are you really making a theme?
Now, there are many different opinions about writing theme. Writing genius Jeff Gerke, whom I respect quite a bit, suggests that story is king; you'll write a story and discover that you'll get a theme on the way. I disagree.
I am of the opinion that you need to find your theme to write it. I manage to work pretty well off the seat of my pants, but before I ever touch pen to paper, I know my theme.
How do you find your theme, then? What do you find in a theme? How does a theme work?
1) A theme must come integrally from the plot and characters. They all work together.
In my Will Vullerman short story, The Reality Ring, my character gets into a mess because he rather recklessly traps himself in an alternate reality. Why? Because he was a little bored with life. Running missions for the ASP was his life, and when that was taken away, he didn't have much left. The theme of the story was about Will rediscovering his purpose in life, and having a pretty rollicking adventure along the way. The story was tied to the theme, and vice versa.
This is why theme is often hard; because you're trying too hard. If you look closely, you'll find the theme was in there in the plot all along. All you need to do is find it and show the reader what it is. In battles, you'll find courage, heroism; in the quest, you'll discover perseverance, fortitude; in the long journey, friendship, fellowship, camaraderie; in the characters, redemption, love, and sacrifice. The themes are there, but like a diamond in the rock, you need to dig them out and make them shine.
2) A theme often involves character change.
As we saw in the above example, the theme is often found in a character change. In other words, my character learned something.
In The War Horn, my main character embarks on a quest, and the quest changes him. In the end, he can't be who he was anymore. He gives up himself and becomes a better person as a result, learning what freedom truly is. The theme drove the plot, so to speak. As Daniel Schwabauer puts it, a character changes when the cost of not changing becomes too high.
The theme quite often revolves around the character. Because in the character, we see ourselves. If we truly empathize with a character, it's because we understand him. When the character changes, we find that we can change too.
3) To show theme, thread it through the story.
Once you've discovered your theme, to make it most effective, you need to thread it through the story. Another of my Will Vullerman stories, In Stasis, had the theme of God's mercy woven throughout it. The ending was meaningful because I had foreshadowed it, so to speak, by introducing the theme in the beginning of the story. Again, in The Reality Ring, the theme was introduced from the very first page and tied up in the ending.
In The War Horn, my character repeatedly was given opportunities to truly see freedom as it must be, and not as he saw it. He failed each time, and each time the stakes grew higher. But by the end, the cost of not changing became too high, and he finally chose correctly. In that way, the theme was continued throughout the story, and finally resolved in the end. In fact, the last word of the book is free.
4) To help in showing theme, embody it in a symbol.
I first came up with the concept of a war horn after listening to an inspirational One Year Adventure Novel lecture called Symbols. In that lecture, Daniel Schwabauer explained that a theme or an ideal can be embodied in a symbol.
In The War Horn, the horn is the symbol of freedom, and also a reminder of my main character's lost father. At the climax of the story, rather than saying that my character chose freedom, I used the war horn to show my character's choice. (But for the full details of that theme, you'll have to read the book yourself!)
Symbols often make the reader dig for meaning. They create a feeling of satisfaction deep within the readers' souls that a simple statement can never do.
5) Reach out of the story and into real life.
The thing that makes a theme a theme is that it matters to us. The characters we love are the ones that spur us on. In a way, we say, "If he did it, so can I."
Thus, a theme shows us something that matters in actual life. In The Thirteenth Call, yet another Will Vullerman short story, Will comes to the conclusion that he can't do his mission alone. Time has run out and he has a slim chance of saving his friends' lives; and all the time he is haunted by the failure from his past. That's relevant to all of us, because we all have failures in our past that haunt our present, and we all need to know that there is Someone who is sovereign over it all.
Ultimately, our job is to point to the greatest Author of all. We reach out of our tale and show our reader that the God of this story is the God of their story. He's the Author of the saga of this world, and His gospel can be traced throughout the world's bloody history, the light in this otherwise dark tale. And He can take the darkness in each of us and transform us in His light.
So what do you think about theme? Are there any other ways you can think of to write theme? Can you think of any great themes in books you've read? Theme's one of my favorite subjects, after all. Let's talk.