Theme

Well, I got back from the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference in Colorado Springs about a week and a half ago, and I thought I’d write down a few conclusions from the meeting.  There aren’t very many.

A good writer’s meeting, like the Pike’s Peak conference, has a lot going on, and that makes it hard for an attendee to decide what to take in at any one time.  You can’t go to all the presentations, unfortunately.  So I made a few choices and let it go at that.  I also had a chance to pitch my sci-fi novel to an agent, and that went well.  She asked me to send her the first 25 pages (which in my novel is the first two chapters plus a few pages into the third).  I sent those off only about six days after I got back, but haven’t heard from her yet.  Time will tell.

Most of the other presentations I went to were good and helpful, like the critique sessions where a writer reads the first page of his/her novel and it gets critiqued by an author/agent/publisher.  That’s good because it helps to know what they’re looking for.  Of the other lectures I went to, one in particular intrigued me enough to do a little research on it after I got home.  That was a discussion of “Theme.”

Do you know what “theme” is?  What’s the “theme” of your novel or of the last movie you saw?  How do you find out?  Most novels and movies and even short stories will have a theme, though it may be buried so deep you may have trouble finding it.  The moderator of that session defined theme as “the argument a story is making.”  While that is good and true, his definition left me unsatisfied and wanting more.  I began looking around.  First I consulted the dictionary.  “Theme” is defined as “(1a) a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation, and (1b), a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic or concern.”  Neither of those is any better than the definition the speaker gave at the meeting.  I still wanted more, but I was beginning to realize this term isn’t going to be easy to define.  It is one of those nebulous concepts that is hard to define, but “you know it when you see it.”  Here are some of my attempts to define “theme” in fiction.

Theme is the overriding broad concept that a story presents to the reader without directly stating it, but which can usually be expressed in a few words.

Theme is the meaning of the story; but more significantly, it’s the distillation of the meaning down to a few words.

Theme is the abstract idea expressed by the story independent of the characters, plot, setting, dialogue, and so forth.

Theme is not what the story is about.  That’s the plot.  Theme is what the story means.  It’s the broad, universal meaning behind the story.  A story is unique.  Generally, two people don’t write the same story.  Theme, on the other hand, is broad.  One theme can be applied to many stories.  For example, read “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  The theme is relatively easy to see there.  The story itself is one thing, but the theme is quite another.

Theme is the message the author is trying to present to the reader without actually saying it.  It’s what the author wants the reader to take away after he/she puts the book down.  It’s the take-home lesson.

That’s enough for now.  If you have a different definition of “theme,” I’d like to read it.

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