I have been struggling with theme for a time now. I research and research, and it seems that theme slips from my grasp with every knew opinion and idea about it that exists.
But, I think I may have finally had that epiphany that you get when having a shower. That aha moment when you finally get it.
So I am going to explain to you my idea of theme. How I see it. How I plan to implement it. How I believe it can be integrated into story.
So first off: Every story has theme.
That part is true. At least every good story has theme. Any story I have read, heard, or watched had theme.
You can have multiple themes:
Every story has theme. Some will have one major theme that sticks out. But if you look, you can find other smaller themes. Some themes are directly related to certain characters, or certain plot lines. Some themes cover the whole story. You can weave this as you want.
Every scene relates to the theme:
This one was hard for me. It felt very restrictive. How could I relate every scene to the theme? But then this was part of that epiphany moment. You can have more then one theme. Also, you don’t want to yell your theme into the faces of the reader. You don’t want to be preachy. So this is also when you can add in the theme like a little salt and pepper. You can be obscure, but not so obscure the reader can’t find it if looking.
You can also be blunt. But not all the time. Maybe a few scenes in the book slaps the reader around and says, “this is what I’m trying to say Jack. Right here. Listen to me.” If you do that to much, though, the reader may put the book down.
Theme is a statement:
Theme isn’t a question, or a motif. Theme doesn’t dance around the message. Theme says “You will die a lonely and sad death if you don’t get along with people.” It tells you directly, without dancing around the bush.
Theme picks a side:
The different plots taught in English class: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, etc. Okay all fine and dandy. Your theme will pick a side of that vs. The side that proves the theme correct.
How To Implement Theme
This is the tough part. This is were it gets hard. I found that first you have to pick your tricks of the trade. The tricks that will help you show theme. I’m sure they all have their own English Class names. But I’m using my own descriptions for these tricks. So bite me.
This is when you show something in the scene that is opposite the theme. Say you have a theme for a specific character that says: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” You can then show a scene of the character enjoying the soft side of love. Little does anybody know you have the prickly side waiting for him a few pages down. haha. Your evil.
We will stick with the above theme: “Love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt.” So maybe while your character is enjoying the soft side of love, he is making love to his girl and they are outside, and they roll into a thorn bush. Blunt/Subtle. The readers don’t know the wording of your theme. Only you do. They may just think it is funny that the character has an ass full of thorns. But it is theme. It is there. Anybody that wants to look will see it. Especially later when things get rough and theme comes out bluntly.
Theme can come out in dialogue. In conversation. There are different methods to this. You can be blunt and have somebody even repeat the words of your theme. What fun is that? I mean in some instances it probably works. But I want a word count here. Lets stretch it out. Lets show the theme through a conversation without actually saying it. Maybe the character is talking to his buddy about what a bitch his girlfriend is. His friend has experience and says love is rough. You get cut. You bleed inside.
A sound can help show theme. Maybe the rattling noise of a dry thorn bush nearby disrupts the lovers during a pick nick in the woods.
Action is sometimes the best way to show theme. A fight ensues between the two lovers. Maybe the character is trying to think about the right thing to say as to avoid making things worse: He is trying to avoid the prickly situation.
Your plot is the story. You will have smaller subplots, and then the larger one. And they all relate to the overall goal of the story. Your story overall plot is best reserved for that big thematic message. But maybe, since we are talking about a character theme, we will stick to the plot of this relationship. The overall plot, and all that goes into it, will, in the end, show the theme. Because theme is a statement and will be proven correct, the fact that love is like a thorn bush, prickly and full of hurt, the plot has to prove this. So in the end, the character will get hurt from his love with the girl. The whole plot leads to that. But just to not confuse people, that doesn’t mean that is the end of the relationship. A new plot can start and they can prove the theme wrong by having a new theme that states love will win over all, or something along those mushy lines. You can, of course, be evil and just leave the character hurt. ha ha.
Motifs and Symbols
Motifs are identified as symbols, mistakenly.
Symbols: images, ideas, sounds or words, represent something else. They help the reader understand an idea or a thing.
Motifs: images, ideas, sounds or words, help explain the central idea of a story, like theme.
Another major difference. A symbol may appear once or twice. Motif appears throughout the story as a recurring element.
People get confused and think Motif is theme. It isn’t. Motif is an element to help carry theme. Example theme: “have hope and the day will come through”. The motif may be the word “hope” from the lips of a crazy lady throughout the story. Or it may be the sunrise every morning. Imagery, Dialogue, Action, and Sounds, all tools of theme themselves can also be motifs, if you decide to use that same element throughout the story.
Symbols, not directly used to show theme, may be used to show an idea or thing that helps show theme. Very subtle indeed. “Have hope and the day will come through” The idea of hope creating hope helps show this theme. Maybe the idea, of a person in a bad situation, to help another, in hopes that person will help others as well, symbolizes hope creating hope, which leads to the theme “have hope and the day will come through”. Very subtle indeed.
Using this all together
These are all independent tools to help incorporate theme. The best use is to use them all together, quite often in a complex weaving of each other. Have a scene with dialogue, action, sound and imagery. In that imagery show symbols of an idea that supports the theme, and through action show a motif that appears throughout the plot. What a powerful scene that will be. And the best part, the part that makes you a writer, is you show all these elements and still move the story forward in its goals and plot.