A ‘Theme’ Identifies the Heart of the Story

Theme is a nebulous force. You know what the story is about: Jane leaves Bill for another — and finds she’s made a mistake. That’s the ‘Premise,’ but the theme underlies that. It’s the essence of the story–what it’s really about; its purpose; its core.

Maybe the theme is redemption? That sounds clichéd but there’s a limit to the number of themes possible, so this is the one place you can indulge in cliché. And you won’t get caught because theme is never overtly stated.

Here’s some theme possibilities: https://kathrineroid.wordpress.com/2011/09/25/100-themes-challenge-writing-prompts/

(Writing a premise precedes identifying a theme. For tips on writing a premise, see:  http://thescribes.ca/a-premise-is-the-recipe-for-your-story/)

A Theme Provides Focus and Structure

Mary Bryant retained her humour and delight in others, in spite of poverty and adversity, which dogged her life from start to finish. This tree, which still stands near Mary's former homestead on Quadra Island, BC, is symbolic of her inspiring resilience.

Mary Bryant retained her humour and delight in others, in spite of poverty and adversity, which dogged her life from start to finish. This tree, which still stands near Mary’s former homestead on Quadra Island, BC, is symbolic of her inspiring resilience.

For a fiction writer, the theme might not become evident until well into drafting. “Theme must emerge naturally, and the fiction itself must be an experience for your reader, not just an abstract idea you hammer home in didactic fashion,” wrote Jack Smith in a recent Writer’s Digest magazine article. But finding that theme is crucial because it becomes the organizing force. It determines what stays in, what goes, and where the emphasis will be.

A Format for Identifying the Theme

Nonfiction writers have an advantage because they’re working with known facts. A theme may become evident as they gather information. Jack Hart recommends in his book Story Craft, The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction an effective technique for determining nonfiction theme, and suggests it may work for fiction too:

1. Do your research and decide on the key subjects.

2. Write a theme statement at the top of the page, at the outset. This is a clear, concise sentence, says Jack Hart, relying on nouns and at least one active verb (action words). Better yet, this should be a transitive verb (one that’s followed by a noun, which forces you to be more specific).

An Example of a Theme Statement

I tried this to guide the challenge of writing a true-life fiction piece in just 500 words, to hone my normally expansive style. The story’s premise follows a pioneer woman’s difficult first year, with an at-term pregnancy in the middle of a freak snowstorm.

My first attempt at a theme statement was:   Good [adjective] humour [noun] in the face of adversity [noun] inspires [verb].

That was illuminating. It was Mary’s resilience I was interested in, but I didn’t have a “transitive verb” yet. (Nor did I know what that was.) Here’s how my theme statement evolved when I converted that verb into its transitive form, forcing me to be specific:

Good [adjective] humour [noun] in the face of adversity [noun] inspires [transitive verb] other pioneer immigrants.

This theme statement became my guide. I had to show how Mary inspired others and what it meant to them—and to her. I had to leave out many other delicious details for some other use. The result was a focused story with an undercurrent many can relate to. I’ll print the result in December 2016, as winter reading.