What is Theme?

by Terry Bain

The theme is the container for your story. Theme will attempt to hold all the elements of your story in place. It is like a cup. A vessel. A goblet. The plot and characters and dialogue and setting and voice and everything else are all shaped by the vessel. In many cases the vessel will go unnoticed by readers, but it would be very difficult to drink a glass of wine without the glass itself. The glass itself is, of course, part of the experience, but it is not one we always pay much attention to.

Okay, okay, so I used a nice metaphor. But now you want to know: what the heck is a theme? First, the word theme is confusing and may do you as much harm as good. You shouldn’t think of theme as the ponderous sort of explanations given by critics and academics. That doesn’t have much to do with writing a story. And you’ll get into an equal amount of trouble if you think of theme as synonymous with message or moral. That kind of thing is best left to pundits and philosophers.

The novelist John Gardner wisely says: “By theme here we mean not a message—a word no good writer likes applied to his work—but the general subject, as the theme of an evening of debates may be World Wide Inflation.” You see, the theme may be simply world wide inflation without there being any elegant solution for inflation or even a single point of view on the subject. The great Anton Chekov also said something something smart. He said that the fiction writer does not need to solve a problem so much as state the problem correctly.

So, you see, you’re off the hook. You don’t have to create themes that will solve the problems of the world. You just have to shine your flashlight on some aspect of life and let the reader see what’s there. Not every aspect. Some aspect. And that’s a key point because a theme should give a story some kind of focus, in a manner similar to how plot gives a story focus.

We’re probably best off by just saying that theme is some kind of unifying idea in a story. Any kind of unifying idea will do, truth be told.

Ever read the children’s picture book Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown?  If you haven’t, I’ll tell you a little about it. I’ve spent many a night reading this book to my son. The story is simple. A bunny is going to bed, and all the things in his room are introduced to the reader. The story, or perhaps the bunny, then proceeds to say goodnight to all the things in his room: socks, clocks, kittens, mittens, brush, and mush. But there is a point in the book at which the page is blank, and the caption reads:

                                          Goodnight nobody.

I am always surprised and delighted when I come to this page, and it has only recently occurred to me why this is.

When I read the caption, “Goodnight nobody,” I see the author’s hand. I see the background to the story. I begin to look for a deeper meaning there. I think to myself, what does Margaret Wise Brown want me to be looking for when I read the line “Goodnight nobody?” And what I understand, eventually, is that I am moved to create meaning from this very simple book. The meaning I take from it is this—that at the precise moment we arrive at the blank page, the bunny has fallen asleep. The room is filled with the quiet breathing of sleep. The theme of Goodnight Moon? Simple, silent, sleep.

This may be cheating, using a children’s book to illustrate theme. But doing this also helps me illustrate that theme is not the same thing as message, since there is no message to the book, though there is a theme. What is Goodnight Moon really about? Sleep.

A well-defined theme gives a story a kind of focus, a center. A well-defined theme allows a writer to distill the ideas, to present them in a simple fashion, to tell the story that will last longer than half an hour. Goodnight Moon is a classic children’s book not because it has fancy pictures or a high-concept plot, but because it’s a story, with a deeper, more meaningful theme than can be found on the surface.

Have you ever read a story and said to yourself, “Well, that was nice, but what does it matter? Don’t you want someone who reads your story to instead think, Wow, I can’t stop thinking about that story! Of course you do. And one of the ways to achieve that effect is by cultivating a theme and making an appropriate vessel from which your reader may drink. The experience of drinking from a cup is generally more satisfying than spilling the liquid out on the table. By working with theme, you will take what may be an okay, nice, lovely, charming story, and help it become myth—turning it into a part of the consciousness of the reader, something that lasts longer than half an hour.

This article is excerpted from Chapter 9 of Gotham's book Writing Fiction.