Concept is what brings the audience to a story.
Theme is what they walk away with.
I used to have a difficult time identifying the difference between writing terms like theme, concept, plot, structure, etc. And, to a large extent, there is crossover between them (which, I think, is part of the reason it can be difficult to hone in on the specifics of each one). But, the more I write, the easier it is for me to identify the pieces of story.
I’ve discussed the differences in previous posts, but I wanted to take this post to discuss concept and theme specifically.
WHAT THEY ARE
Concept, or “the hook,” is that one, central idea that a story is built around. Usually it’s revealed by the story’s inciting incident or at least somewhere in the first act. This is because, without the concept, you cannot have that story.
Theme, however, is the message the story sends. The “take away” the audience leaves with. The “point” of the story. Of course, one story will have many themes. But, usually there’s one overarching theme to each story.
Concept is what the story is about. Theme is what the story is saying.
How They Connect
One of the tasks of the the writer is to identify the concept and theme that the writer desires to convey. From there, the writer can better identify what story will most effectively do that. What plot, characters, and structure will convey both concept and theme with the most impact, entertainment, and significance?
Ideally, a concept should be a beautiful set up for the theme. And the theme should relate back to the concept.
Concept and Theme Examples
Okay, I like examples, so here are two to help explain. The following are my interpretations of the stories’ concepts and themes, but I feel they work well for explanatory purposes.
Concept: A theme park filled with living dinosaurs.
Theme: It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.
As you can see, the story of Jurassic Park cannot exist without the idea of bringing dinosaurs back to life and having a theme park to showcase them. You can, of course, have other stories about living dinosaurs, but Jurassic Park can’t exist without that concept.
Also, look how beautifully the theme and concept support each other. Again, there are many different stories that can explore the theme of messing with nature. But exploring what would happen if dinosaurs are brought back to life is a pretty impactful way to do it! Moreover, I think we’d all feel a little cheated as an audience if we got all the way through a story about brining dinosaurs back to life and the ramifications of doing so was not explored.
Concept: An astronaut is left on Mars. Alone.
Theme: Work the problem. Never give up.
Again, look how wonderfully the concept and the theme relate. Being left on Mars, alone, would really test someone’s “never give up” mentality. And what a great way to showcase the necessity of “working the problem” then one’s life literally depending on doing so.
In both The Martian and the Jurassic Park, their concepts are great set ups to explore their corresponding themes: What better way to explore intervention with nature than to bring dinosaurs back to life? What better way to show the necessity of never giving up than trying to survive alone on an entire planet? And the themes are natural explorations based on those concepts and themes that the audience likely (even if subconsciously) expects to be explored based on those concepts.
Not all stories have such clear cut connections, and they don’t all have to. Moreover, you don’t have to have such “high concepts” as these to make a story compelling and impactful.
Additionally, a story doesn’t always have to “take a position” on a theme — sometimes it can simply present a situation and let the audience walk away with an interest in contemplating the theme further and arriving at their own conclusions.
Nevertheless, it can be helpful to be aware of both concept and theme (and how they interrelate) within your own story, to make sure both are complementing each other and that the audience will walk away feeling fulfilled.
And, if you’re writing a story and something just doesn’t feel right, it might be because the concept and theme aren’t connected in the most effective way possible.
So! If, like me, you have trouble remembering the difference between concept and theme, think of them this way: while the audience shows up because they are intrigued by the concept (this is what we see in the trailer, on the back of a book, or in the tagline), theme is what the audience leaves a story mulling over (what they are left feeling, thinking, and contemplating).
Or, at least, that’s the hope 😉
Concept is what draws the audience in. Theme is what the audience leaves with.
Post by Ann Marie Williams © 2022