Thursday, June 14, 2012

What Is This Theme Stuff, Anyway?

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?

List time!

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.


Abbey said...

Theme is a bit confusing for me....
I'm a Christian and although I don't outwardly mention God in what I've written thus far, there are Christian elements in my stories. A small example, I am very careful with my characters. They don't do things contrary to what the Bible says.
I am planning on writing a series of novels and short stories similar to Sherlock Holmes. The stories will be about two spys who have adventures.
My female character is Christian, my male is not. Throughout the stories he is going to change into a better person because he see's that she is a good person.
My problem is that I don't want my stories to be too cliche. I pick up Christian fiction in the bookstore and by reading the back flap, the stories all seem the same. Character is non-Christian, something big happens to make character turn to God, character is rejected by friends but clings to God, eventually gets new friends and it turns out happy. OR, Christian goes on an adventure or quest, relys on God throughout the whole quest, eventually makes it back alive with a stronger faith.
I'm not saying these are bad.... But Christian fiction seems to have a lot of the same elements to it and after awhile, reading the same thing over and over gets a little boring (ever read Warrior Cats by Erin Hunter? A prime example of things getting boring after awhile).
I want my spy stories to reach out to all audiences. I want to show non-Christians that you can be happy without having a dirty mouth and dirty habits. Both my main characters will be very clean.
I'm wondering, if one of my characters is Christian, should I have her talking to the other character about God? I don't want these stories to be primarily about the male character's conversion. I want the stories to be about the adventures, with Christian themes (such as honor and loyalty) driving the characters ambition.
I just don't know what to do about this.
I would appreciate any help anyone is willing to give.

C. S. Lakin said...

Hey Jake, this coincides with my multi-week discussion of theme over at my blog Come on over and join in and share some thoughts. YOU have some great comments here about theme!

Christopher said...

I'm going to have to disagree with what you said about story being king. Think about it. What makes a better book? A story that the reader can relate to, or a story that seems superficial? If we simply tell a good story, we'll find a theme. When we wake up in the morning, we don't go "And the theme of my life today will be....hmm....redemption!" Why would we do it in a book?

When I write, I let whatever the story determine the theme. I don't have a strong idea of the theme when I write. I let it develop. Evolve on it's own. Otherwise, you end up with something seeming very forced, and probably accomplishing the opposite of what one intends. I'm sad to say, this is manifest in my Christian Movies nowadays. There's a theme the writers of movie X (I'm intentionally being vague here, as I know many people disagree with me here), want to convey, and so they write a story so that they can put the theme in it. As a result, the story is ofentimes melodramatic, cheesy, boring, cliche, and mutliple other things.

In my mind, I think that we can't let the theme write the story. THe Story has to write the theme.

Jake said...

And I still politely disagree, Christopher. I agree that there has to be some level of discovery of the theme in the story. In fact, I noted that in the post. However, I don't write a story without knowing the theme of the story. I sometimes know the theme before the story; but if the theme doesn't fit the story, I find others.

We have a natural neglect of the spiritual as humans. If I'm not making sure that a theme's in my story, chances are, there'll be little theme in it; and even if there is, it'll be a pretty lame theme.

Sometimes the theme, or things related to the theme, create the story. Christopher Hopper's speculation, the one that created his books, automatically created the theme. What if Adam hadn't sinned? The theological consequences create the theme AND the story.

But I do agree that writing a story to put a theme in it often ends up forced and cheesy. I never do that. I don't let the story write the theme, but neither do I let the theme write the story. Theme is to me integral to story. I can't have story without theme. (I'm not saying that a story can't exist without theme; I was speaking of myself and my own preferences.) The arm can't say to the head, "I don't need you!" so to speak. It doesn't work.

Jake said...

Abbey -

I've been there many, many times. Right now, I'm working on some science fiction short stories that I hope to share with a secular and Christian audience, so I know where you're coming from.

I'm hoping I can help you with this, and I apologize if I come across as preachy or long-winded.

The trick in writing Christian fiction is writing about that passion that burns in your soul. Writing without meaning is fluff, as I've said; but trying to manufacture meaning without passion is fluff, too.

And here's the hard part: we must write a theme with that passion no matter what. Even if someone calls it preachy.

If your character must turn to Christianity, let him do it not by seeing that your female character is a good person, but by seeing what good she reflects: the goodness that only comes through Christ. But don't neglect reality. People only change when the cost of not changing becomes too great. Often, that means that a character hits rock bottom.

Now, to answer your more specific question: let me give you an example. I'm the sort of person that can't help but put themes in my stories. And when I talk to other writers about theme, I can't help but shout, "God is love! God is truth! God is the essence of morality: you can't have morality without Him."

In the same way, then, the only realistic way someone can write about me is to mention, at one point or another, that I have a passion for writing Christian themes, and it comes out in my blog posts.

Now, compare it to your character: if your character is truly a Christian who loves God, then how can she not talk about Him? Don't worry about what other people will say. Follow the character: if it is in the girl's character to talk about God, then she must talk about God. You can't realistically portray her otherwise. Not portraying her faith is almost as bad as preaching it.

My main point is, don't be afraid to put theme in your writing. Don't let what other people think drive you away from what God calls you to write. And good luck, my friend.

Abbey said...

Thanks Jake. =) This has helped a lot. I must say that I agree with you.... if someone is truly passionate about being a follower of Christ, they can't help but talk about it. I've seen it in numerous people and in myself.
I think my problem is that I've built up a standard in my mind that says, "the world has to read this story as secular" when the rest of me is saying, "your a Christian, show your faith in your writing!"
Thanks again!
(and don't worry about sounding preachy.... I know exactly how that feels. I am sure my friends think I am waaay too preachy. But I'm still a work in progress - we've all got a lot to learn)