What do you think’s the most important element of a story? Some people say the plot. Others say the characters. They’re both wrong.
Sure stories are meant to entertain us with gripping plots and complex characters. Good stories will always do that. But great stories do more. They teach us. About life. About ourselves. Characters can’t always do that. Neither can plot.
But a solid Theme can.
What is a Theme?
In the simplest terms, a theme is an idea. It’s not what your story is about because that would be the plot. The theme is what you, as the writer, are trying to say. What is the moral of your story? What is the lesson that you want readers to take away?
A theme is usually distilled to a single sentence or even one word. Examples include, “love conquers all,” or simply “Love,” or “Family.” You may begin with a theme in mind and write a story that illustrates that theme. Or, you can also draft a story then examine it and ask yourself, “What am I trying to say?”
Your plot answers the who, what, where, and when. A well-developed theme answers the most important question- Why? As in why are you writing this story? And, why should a reader care? But Theme can be a bit esoteric, so let’s look at concrete examples.
Examples of Theme
Family in the Harry Potter series
Represented by the close-knitted family unit- the Weasleys, Harry’s adopted family. Rowling contrasts the loving Weasleys to Harry’s biological family, the Dursleys. The Dursleys are cold and abusive towards Harry. In the contrast, Rowling shows that your true family is the friends who love and support you. The people you choose to surround yourself with.
Power in A Game of Thrones
Whether it’s the book or the TV series, the theme of Power is at the heart of either story. Who has power and who is struggling for it? What sacrifice are you willing to make to achieve power? Ned Stark is not willing to sacrifice his own moral code to the pursuit of power so he pays the ultimate price. The question that the text poses to us is: In the end, is Power worth losing your soul?
Media Consumption in Fahrenheit 451
As it turns out, Bradbury did not mean his most famous work to be a commentary on government censorship. Rather it was about how people were, “being turned into morons by TV.” The characters in Fahrenheit 451 live as slaves to their electronic entertainment. They immerse themselves in their televised “parlors.” And plug their ears with their radio “seashells.” Bradbury saw how people interacted with the new invention of television. He foresaw a world of people consumed by their electronic media bubbles. This was before the inventions of the internet, smartphones, and Bluetooth earbuds…
How do you develop a theme?
Start with an idea
As I said before, a theme is often simplified to one word, like Love, or Family. You can start your writing process by tackling one of these Big Ideas. You may say to yourself, how can I write about love? What could I add that hasn’t been already been said? Well, you have your own unique viewpoint.
Take one of these Big Ideas and ask yourself, what do I want to say about Love? What are my opinions about Money, or Power, or Gender Identity? Your opinions on these concepts matter because they are uniquely yours. Whether we agree with you or not the rest of the world deserves to hear your voice. Please, share it with us.
Create a symbol
Once you’ve chosen your Big Idea, you may want to choose a symbol to represent it. This could be a character or an object. In Lord of the Rings, the One Ring represents the theme of Power. The moral that Tolkien wants to convey is that Power, in the wrong hands, is a corrupting force in our world. In the text, only the most innocent, or brave characters can resist this corruption. The characters of Aragorn, Samwise, and Frodo represent the resistance to corruption.
Another example is the conch from Lord of the Flies. The conch represents rules and order. Once the conch breaks the society, within the story, breaks as well. Cruelty and chaos run amok.
Symbols are a great way to present complex ideas. Fire can represent passion, gold can represent wealth. Your readers will understand these symbols intuitively. No need to bore them with a lot of exposition or dialogue.
Have characters discuss the theme
The best way to explore a theme is to have your character talk about it. But don’t have every character parrot your own opinions on a theme. There’s no conflict if everyone agrees with one another. Have your characters take opposing viewpoints. Make them argue with each other. If you agree with one viewpoint over another then reveal that through the plot.
In the movie, Jurassic Park Ian Malcolm is in conflict with park owner John Hammond. He argues that Hammond and his scientists are playing God. Hammond holds his own in their debates. Yet, the plot proves Malcolm right when the dinosaurs break free, and you know… start eating people.
Explore theme from different angles
As shown in Jurassic Park, characters should argue about the theme. Have characters that argue the opposite of what you believe. It’s always fun to play the devil’s advocate, and there’s not always a right answer. In fact, most of the time there are dozens of angles to a theme and no clear answers. Moral ambiguity can make for a great plot. So, in your writing be sure to argue for all the opposing views of your theme. Who knows, you might even change your own mind.
Reveal theme through the central conflict
Your primary theme should bare out in your story’s main conflict. If you’re arguing that money is the source of all evil, then your story’s climax should reflect that idea in some way.
Say your protagonist is a low-level Wall Street broker. He meets a successful investor who decides to take your character on as an apprentice. After a while, your hero discovers that their mentor has morally corrupt practices. Blinded by his pursuit of wealth your character engages in an act of insider trading. Ultimately your hero chooses the right path. But, they have to sacrifice their career and their freedom in the process. Ok, this is the plot of the movie Wall Street but you get the idea.
So, there are many ways to develop a theme. If you have any better ideas please feel free to leave them in the comments section. Remember, the theme is the heart of your story. It is answer to why you are writing in the first place. It’s also why you want people to read, so don’t skimp on the theme!