WRITING TIPS: WHAT IS THEME?

by Ann Marie Williams © 2020

We’re finally here! The last post in my week long discussion of concept, plot, structure, format, and theme — how each are unique, and how each affect one another. I’ve been giving my explanation of these terms, their role in storytelling, and how they interrelate with each other.

As a quick recap, I’ve discussed how:

  • Concept is the idea that allows for the story to be possible.
  •  Plot is the story itself; the events that unfold from start to finish.
  • Structure is the framework used to build the plot; the way in which the story is told.
  • Formatting is the tools used to build the framework; the tools at your disposal to convey your story.

So, that just leaves one final topic for today…

Today’s topic: THEME

What is theme?

THEME (AKA MESSAGE OR MEANING)

Theme is the point of the story.

Theme isn’t the story (plot) or the concept (the idea for the story), theme is what the story is trying to say. Theme is the main message you want your audience to walk away with. Theme is “what it all means.”


THEME EXAMPLES

Examples will be drawn from It's a Wonderful Life and The Martian.
Caution: There will be spoilers!

Before I get to theme examples, I should preface by saying that — while a story might have multiple themes — it will likely have one or two overarching themes that its concept and plot have been building toward.

That said, theme can be difficult to pinpoint.  Two people can walk away from a story with slightly different interpretations of what it all meant. This isn’t necessarily a fault of the story, but a result of our being unique individuals. We all have different experiences and models that stories get filtered through that might make us draw different conclusions about a story’s theme.  

But, that isn’t an excuse to not convey your theme as effectively as you can. Typically, if a story’s plot and structure are crafted effectively, if the concept and plot set-up the theme properly, then the majority of the audience will walk away with similar interpretations of the story’s theme.

So! With that in mind, here are my interpretations of the themes for the stories below:

Theme example for It’s a Wonderful Life: Life is precious; we don’t always know how our lives touch others; the amount of money an individual has is not the measure of that individual’s worth to society.

Theme example for The Martian: Never give up.  Work the problem.

Now, both of these stories say a lot more than what I’ve written above. They carry far more than just these few messages. But, in narrowing down their main plots to their most basic themes, these were the messages I walked away with.

As you can see, theme can be fairly general and universal (e.g. love conquers all, good prevails, never give up, life is precious). Or it can be more specific (e.g. we don’t always know how our lives touch others, work the problem).

Moreover, a single theme can be conveyed via many different plots and in many different ways (and it usually is).  But, when crafting my stories, I try to keep in mind that my theme, plot and concept should all support each other: that the concept is best conveyed by the plot, and that the plot is the best way to lead to the theme.

On that note…


HOW THEME INTERRELATES

Theme, Concept and Plot

As a reminder, concept is the one idea that allows for the story to exist. Earlier in the week, I gave the following concept examples:

Concept example for It’s a Wonderful Life:  Seeing what the world would be like if you’d never been born.

Concept example for The Martian: A person is stranded on Mars.  Alone.

Both of these concepts are very straightforward, very to the point, and very succinct.  They are one specific thing.  One specific idea. And without that one idea, the plots of both stories wouldn’t exist.

Also notice that these stories’ themes are not the same as their concepts. But, the themes are linked to the concepts.

In other words, while a story’s theme doesn’t have to be directly related to the concept, per say, the concept should be a an excellent setup to convey the theme.  And the plot should be an effective way to link the two.

Showing George how much worse off the lives of his friends and family would be were he never born is a pretty effective way to show that there’s more than one way to measure someone’s worth. 

And sticking Mark on Mars, alone, knowing that if he gives up he’ll die — that’s a pretty effective way to demonstrate the importance of perseverance.

Bottom line, there are lots of different stories that could be told to convey a concept. And there are lots of different stories that could convey the same theme. But, it’s the job of the writer to find the plot that best conveys both.

Theme and… Everything

This week, I saved discussing theme last for two reasons:

  1. An audience can only decipher theme once the story is over.
  2. Theme is affected by every other aspect of a story.

Concept, plot, structure, formatting… as completely different from theme as these story attributes are, they all greatly affect a story’s message — because theme is the message the entire story has been building toward.

So, if the plot conveys the theme but the plot isn’t structured appropriately, then it could lead the audience to a different theme than the writer intended. Similarly, if the story is brilliant but the formatting is wrong and causes confusion, then ultimately the theme could be affected. It all interrelates.


TYING IT ALL TOGETHER (finally)

I’ve enjoyed looking at these five story attributes this week. But we’ve covered a lot of points, so I want to leave this discussion by trying to tie this all together. Here goes:

  • Concept generates plot.
  • Plot embodies concept.
  • Plot leads to theme.
  • Structure is the framework to build the plot (and thus affects concept and theme).
  • Formatting is the set of tools to convey your intent for the entire story.

Well, I think that’s it! At least for now. Thanks so much for reading. And, as always, happy writing!

Theme is message and meaning

Theme = Message

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