A Few Words About Theme

A Few Words About Theme

By Melanie Anne Phillips
Creator StoryWeaver Co-creator Dramatica

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Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve written thousands of articles on story structure and storytelling.  Here, I’ve gathered together a few of the best on the topic of theme.  I hope you find them illuminating in concept and practical in application.

Coming Apart at the Themes

Even when a story has memorable characters, a riveting plot and a fully developed genre, it may still be coming apart at the themes.

Theme is perhaps the most powerful, yet least understood element of story structure. It is powerful because theme is an emotional argument: It speaks directly to the heart of the reader or audience. It is least understood because of its intangible nature, working behind the scenes, and between the lines.

When mis-used, theme can become a ham-handed moral statement in black and white, alienating the reader/audience with its dogmatic pontifications. When properly used, theme can add richness, nuance, and meaning to a story that would otherwise be no more than a series of events.

In this article, we’ll separate the elements of theme by their dramatic functions so we can understand the parts. Then we’ll learn how to combine them together into a strong message that is greater than the sum of the parts.

What do we really mean by the word, “theme?” In fact, “theme” has two meanings. The first meaning is not unlike that of a teacher telling a class to write a theme paper. We’ve all received assignments in school requiring us to express our thoughts about “how we spent our summer vacation,” or “the impact of industrialization on 19th century cultural morality,” or “death.” Each of these “themes” is a topic, nothing more, and nothing less. It functions to describe the subject matter that will be explored in the work, be it a paper, novel, stage play, teleplay, or movie.

Every story needs a thematic topic to help hold the overall content of the story together, to act as a unifying element through which the plot unfolds and the characters grow. In fact, you might look at the thematic topic as the growth medium in which the story develops. Although an interesting area to explore, the real focus of this article is on the other element of theme.

This second aspect of theme is the message or premise of your story. A premise is a moral statement about the value of or troubles caused by an element of human character. For example, some common premises include, “Greed leads to Self-Destruction,” and “True love overcomes all obstacles.”

A story without a premise seems pointless, but a story with an overstated message comes off as preachy. While a premise is a good way to understand what a story is trying to prove, it provides precious little help on how to go about proving it.

Let’s begin by examining the components of “premise” and then laying out a sure-fire method for developing an emotional argument that will lead your reader or audience to the moral conclusions of your story without hitting them over the head.

All premises grow from character. Usually, the premise revolves around the Main Character. In fact, we might define the Main Character as the one who grapples with the story’s moral dilemma.

A Main Character’s moral dilemma may be a huge issue, such as the ultimate change in Scrooge when he leaves behind his greedy ways and becomes a generous, giving person. Or, the dilemma may be small, as when Luke Skywalker finally gains enough faith in himself to turn off the targeting computer and trust his own instincts in the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV). Either way, if the premise isn’t there at all, the Main Character will seem more like some guy dealing with issues, than an example in human development from whom we can learn.

Traditionally, premises such as these are stated in the form, “This leads to That.” In the examples above, the premises would be “Greed leads to Self Destruction,” and “Trusting in Oneself leads to Success.” The Point of each premise is the human quality being explored: “Greed” in the case of Scrooge and “Self Trust” with Luke.

We can easily see these premises in A Christmas Carol and Star Wars, but what if you were simply given either of them and told to write a story around them? Premises are great for boiling a story’s message down to its essence, but are not at all useful for figuring out how to develop a message in the first place.

So how do we create a theme in a way that will guide us in how to develop it in our story, and also sway our audience without being overbearing? First, we must add something to the traditional “This leads to That” form of the premise. Beside having a thematic Point like “Greed” we’re going to add a Counterpoint – the opposite of the point – in this case, “Generosity.”

Arguing to your audience that Greed is Bad creates a one-sided argument. But arguing the relative merits of Greed vs. Generosity provides both sides of the argument and lets your audience decide for itself. Crafting such an argument will lead your reader or audience to your conclusions without forcing it upon them. Therefore, you will be more likely to convince them rather than having them reject your premise as a matter of principle, making themselves impervious to your message rather than swallowing it whole.

To create such an argument, follow these steps:

1. Determine what you want your story’s message to be

We all have human qualities we admire and others we despise. Some might be as large as putting oneself first no matter how much damage it does to others. Some might be as small as someone who borrows things and never gets around to returning them. Regardless, your message at this stage will simply take the form, “Human Quality X is Bad,” or “Human Quality Y is Good.”

If you are going to create a message that is passionate, look to what truly irks you, or truly inspires you, and select that human quality to give to your Main Character. Then, you’ll find it far easier to come up with specific examples of that quality to include in your story, and you will write about it with vigor.

This is your chance to get up on the soapbox. Don’t waste it on some grand classic human trait that really means nothing to you personally. Pick something you really care about and sound off by showing how that trait ennobles or undermines your Main Character.

As a last resort, look to your characters and plot and let them suggest your thematic point. See what kinds of situations are going to arise in your story; what kinds of obstacles will be faced. Think of the human qualities that would make the effort to achieve the story’s goal the most difficult, exacerbate the obstacles, and gum up the works. Give that trait to your Main Character, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to see it take on a life of its own.

Of course, you may already know your message before you even get started. You may, in fact, have as your primary purpose in creating the story the intent to make a point about a particular human quality.

No matter how you come up with your message, once you have it, move on to step 2.

2. Determine your Counterpoint.

As described earlier, the Counterpoint is the opposite of the Point. So, if your story’s message is “Being Closed-Minded is Bad,” then your Point is “Being Closed Minded,” and your Counterpoint is “Being Open Minded.”  Similarly, if your message is “Borrowing things from others and not returning them is Bad,” then your counter point is “Borrowing things from other and returning them.”

Note that we didn’t include the value judgment part of the message (i.e. “Good” or “Bad”) as part of the point or counterpoint. The idea is to let the audience arrive at that conclusion for themselves. The point and counterpoint simply show both sides of the argument. Our next step will be to work out how we are going to lead the audience to come to the conclusion we want them to have.

3. Show how well the Point does vs. the Counterpoint.

The idea here is to see each of the two human qualities (point and counterpoint) in action in your story to illustrate how well each one fares. To this end, come up with as many illustrations as you can of each.

For example, in A Christmas Carol, we see scrooge deny an extension on a loan, refuse to allow Cratchet a piece of coal, decline to make a donation to the poor. Each of these moments fully illustrates the impact of the thematic point of “Greed.” Similarly, in the same story, we see Feziwhig spending his money for a Christmas Party for his employees, Scrooge’s nephew inviting him to dinner, and Cratchet giving of his time to Tiny Tim. Generosity is seen in action as well.

Each instance of Greed propagates ill feelings. Each instance of Generosity propagates positive feelings. As the illustrations layer upon one another over the course of the story, the emotional argument is made that Greed is not a positive trait, whereas Generosity is.

4. Avoid comparing the Point and Counterpoint directly.

Perhaps the greatest mistake in making a thematic argument is to directly compare the relative value of the point and counterpoint. If this is done, it takes all decision away from the audience and puts it right in the hands of the author.  The effect is to have the author repeatedly saying, “Generosity is better than Greed… Generosity is better than Greed,” like a sound loop.

A better way is to show Greed at work in its own scenes, and Generosity at work in completely different scenes. In this manner, the audience is left to drawn its own conclusions. And while showing Greed as always wholly bad and Generosity as always wholly good may create a rather melodramatic message, at least the audience won’t feel as if you’ve crammed it down its throat!

5. Shade the degree that Point and Counterpoint are Good or Bad.

Because you are going to include multiple instances or illustrations of the goodness or badness or your point and counter point, you don’t have to try to prove your message completely in each individual scene.

Rather, let the point be really bad sometimes, and just a little negative others. In this manner, Greed may start out a just appearing to be irritating, but by the end of the story may affect life and death issues. Or, Greed may be as having devastating effects, but ultimately only be a minor thorn in people’s sides. And, of course, you may choose to jump around, showing some examples of major problems with Greed and others that see it in not so dark a light. Similarly, not every illustration of your Counterpoint has to carry the same weight.

In the end, the audience will subconsciously average together all of the illustrations of the point, and also average together all the illustrations of the counterpoint, and arrive at a relative value of one to the other.

For example, if you create an arbitrary scale of +5 down to –5 to assign a value of being REALLY Good (+5) or REALLY Bad (-5), Greed might start out at –2 in one scene, be –4 in other, and –1 in a third. The statement here is that Greed is always bad, but not totally AWFUL, just bad.

Then, you do the same with the counterpoint. Generosity starts out as a +4, then shows up as a +1, and finally ends up as a +3. This makes the statement that Generosity is Good. Not the end-all of the Greatest Good, but pretty darn good!

At the end of such a story, instead of making the blanket statement that Greed is Bad and Generosity is Good, you are simply stating that Generosity is better than Greed. That is a lot easier for an audience to accept, since human qualities in real life are seldom all good or all bad.

But there is more you can do with this. What if Generosity is mostly good, but occasionally has negative effects? Suppose you show several scenes illustrating the impact of Generosity, but in one of them, someone is going to share his meal, but in the process, drops the plate, the food is ruined, and no one gets to eat. Well, in that particular case, Greed would have at least fed one of them! So, you might rate that scene on your arbitrary scale as a –2 for Generosity.

Similarly, Greed might actually be shown as slightly Good in a scene. But at the end of the day, all of the instances of Greed still add up to a negative. For example, scene one of Greed might be a –4, scene two a +2 and scene three a –5. Add them together and Greed comes out to be a –7 overall. And that is how the audience will see it as well.

This approach gives us the opportunity to do some really intriguing things in our thematic argument. What if both Greed and Generosity were shown to be bad, overall? By adding up the numbers of the arbitrary scale, you could argue that every time Greed is used, it causes problems, but ever time Generosity is used, it also causes problems. But in the end, Greed is a –12 and Generosity is only a –3, proving that Generosity, in this case, is the lesser of two evils.

Or what if they both added up Good in the end? Then your message might be that Generosity is the greater of two goods! But they could also end up equally bad, or equally good (Greed at –3 and Generosity at –3, for example). This would be a message that in this story’s particular situations, being Greedy or Generous doesn’t really matter, either way; you’ll make the situation worse.

In fact, both might end up with a rating of zero, making the statement that neither Greed nor Generosity has any real impact on the situation, in the end.

Now, you have the opportunity to create dilemmas for your Main Character that are far more realistic and far less moralistic. And by having both point and counterpoint spend some time in the Good column and some time in the Bad column over the course of your story, you are able to mirror the real life values of our human qualities and their impact on those around us.

What, Exactly, Is Theme?

It seems every author is aware of theme, but try to find one who can define it! Most will tell you theme has something to do with the mood or feel of a story. But how does that differ fromgenre? Others will say that theme is the message of the story. Some will put forth that theme is the premise of a story that illustrates the results of certain kinds of behavior.

Taking each of these a bit farther, a story’s mood or feel might be “anger”. A message might be “nuclear power plants are bad”. A premise could be “greed leads to self-destruction.” Clearly each of these might show up in the very same story, and each has a somewhat thematic feel to it. But just as certainly, none of them feels complete by itself. This is because each is just a different angle on what theme really is.

In fact, theme is perspective. Perspective is relationship. Theme describes the relationshipbetween what is being looked at and from where it is being seen. This is why theme has traditionally been so hard to describe. It is not an independent thing like plot or character, but is a relationship between plot and character.

As a familiar example, think of the old adage about three blind men trying to describe an elephant. Each is like a character in a story, and their investigation of the beast is like the plot. One, feeling the tail comments, “It is long and thin like a snake.” Another, feeling the ear replies, “No, it is wide and flat like a jungle leaf.” The final investigator feels the leg and retorts, “You are both wrong! It is round and stout like a tree.” How each of those men felt about the elephant, how they understood it, depended upon his point of view, and the fact that it was an elephant. It is also true, that had another animal been the object of study, the perspective would have changed as well.

Theme: An Emotional Argument

It is one thing to tell your audience, “Greed leads to self-destruction.” It is another thing to prove it! Using a premise as the basis for your theme provides you with clear idea of what you hope to say, but it provides precious little guidance in how to say it.

You should focus on the Emotional Argument as the way to prove your point without resorting to cut-and-dried, ham-handed, generalizations and platitudes. Here’s how it works:

“Greed,” in our example premise, does not really stand alone, but has a counter-point of “Generosity.” Although the focus of our story will be on Greed, by also showing the contrasting impact of Generosity, we create a thematic conflict pitting point against counter-point.

In our story, act by act, we need to explore both point and counterpoint several times to see the relative worth of each. BUT, we should never compare both DIRECTLY. Rather, the thematic point should be explored on several occasions to see how it fares. Interwoven in other scenes or moments, the counterpoint needs to be separately explored to see how it fares on its own. As the story progresses, the audience will begin to tally-up the independent value of each, averaging its benefits with its drawbacks. By the end of the story, when all examples of the worth of both point and counter-point have been presented, the audience will arrive at an emotional conclusion that one is better than the other.

For example, Greed may seem to have a greatly negative impact in its first appearance, but slightly positive results in its second. A third appearance might see it as being neutral. Overall, the average of all three appearances rates it as slightly negative.

In contrast, Generosity might appear ALSO greatly negative at first, then highly positive, then slightly positive. In the end, it averages out as slightly positive. The conclusion for the audience is that Greed is somewhat worse than Generosity.

Emotions don’t see things as black and white. By avoiding the simple blanket statement made by a premise and “arguing” the relative worth of point and counter-point over the course of your story, you will create an “emotional argument” which will sway your audience to your point of view, rather than trying to hit it over the head.

Both Sides of the Thematic Argument

 Every powerful theme pits a “Message Issue” against a “Counterpoint”, such as “Greed vs. Generosity”, or “Holding On To Hope” vs. “Abandoning Hope”.

The Message Issue and Counterpoint define the thematic argument of your story. They play both sides of the moral dilemma. The most important key to a successful thematic argument is never, ever play the message issue and counterpoint together at the same time.

Why? Because the thematic argument is an emotional one, not one of reason. You are trying to sway your reader/audience to adopt your moral view as an author. This will not happen if you keep showing one side of the argument as “good” and the other side as “bad” in direct comparison. Such a thematic argument would seem one-sided, and treat the issues as being black-and-white, rather than gray-scale.

In real life, moral decisions are seldom cut-and-dried. Although we may hold views that are clearly defined, in practice it all comes down to the context of the specific situation. For example, it may be wrong to steal in general. But, it might be proper to steal from the enemy during a war, or from a large market when you baby is starving. In the end, all moral views become a little blurry around the edges when push comes to shove.

Statements of absolutes do not a thematic argument make. Rather, your most powerful message will deal with the lesser of two evils, the greater of two goods, or the degree of goodness or badness of each side of the argument. In fact, there are often situations where both sides of the moral argument are equally good, equally bad, or that both sides are either good nor bad in the particular situation being explored in the story.

The way to create this more powerful, more believable, and more persuasive thematic argument is as follows:

1. Determine in advance whether each side is good, bad, or neutral.

Do this by assigning an arbitrary “value” to both the Message Issue and the Counterpoint. For example, we might choose a scale with +5 being absolutely good, –5 being absolutely bad, and zero being neutral.

If our thematic argument is Greed vs. Generosity, then Greed (our Message Issue) might be a –3, and Generosity (our Counterpoint) might be a –2. This would mean that both Greed and Generosity are both bad (being in the negative) but that Generosity is a little less bad than Greed since Generosity is only a –2 and Greed is a –3.

2. Show the good and bad aspects of both the Message Issue and the Counterpoint.

Make sure the examples of each side of the thematic argument that you have already developed don’t portray either side as being all good or all bad. In fact, even if one side of the argument turns out to be bad in the end, it might be shown as good initially. But over the course of the story, that first impression is changed by seeing that side in other contexts.

3. Have the good and bad aspects “average out” to the thematic conclusion you want.

By putting each side of the thematic argument on a roller coaster of good and bad aspects, it blurs the issues, just as in real life. But the reader/audience will “average out” all of their exposures to each side of the argument and draw their own conclusions at the end of the story.

In this way, the argument will move out of the realm of intellectual consideration and become a viewpoint arrived by feel. And, since you have not only shown both sides, but the good and the bad of each side, your message will be easier to swallow. And finally, since you never directly compared the two sides, the reader/audience will not feel that your message has been shoved down its throat.

“Premise” Leads to Lack of Conflict

 Many authors have been taught that a meaningful story must have a premise in the form of “Some human quality leads (or does not lead) to a particular inevitable conclusion.” Such a premise might be “Greed (human quality) leads to Self destruction (inevitable conclusion).”

One problem with the premise concept is that it contains no built-in conflict. Rather, it simply presents a starting point, an ending point, and a non-specific path that might be anything at all.

Adding conflict to your premise can provide a driving force to help move your theme through the “leads to” to the conclusion. To add conflict to a premise, consider the human quality stated in the beginning of the premise. In our example, this was “greed.” Next, determine the “opposite” of greed, which might be “generosity.” Now, restate the beginning of your premise as “Greed vs. Generosity.”

We have now created a thematic conflict between two opposing human qualities, rather than simply exploring the one. But, of course, if we left things in this condition the overall premise would not read very well: “Greed vs. Generosity leads to Self Destruction.”

Since we are now examining the relative value of two alternative thematic approaches to life, we must also provide a judgment as to the outcome of each approach. So, we might say that “When Greed vs. Generosity, Greed will result in Self Destruction while Generosity leads to Success.” Now we have a premise full of potential conflict and a comparative conclusion that brings the audience to think, rather than to simply accept the inevitable.

Of course, Generosity might also lead to Self Destruction in a particular story, illustrating that sometimes there is no way out. Or, Generosity might lead to Love, or Wealth, putting a different spin on the “proof.” It also might be shown that Greed leads to the favorable conclusion, while Generosity is Self Destructive. (For an example of this kind of approach, even though it deals with other thematic issues, view Woody Allen’s “Crimes and Misdemeanors.”)

There is much more that can be done with a premise to not only provide conflict, but create a complete thematic argument that works with an audience’s heart, rather than through its intellect.

Theme: What Are You Talking About?

Without theme, a story is just a series of events that proceeds logistically and ends up one way or another. Theme is what gives it all meaning. When encoded into a story, theme will not be a universal meaning for all things, but a smaller truth pertaining to the proper way of dealing with a particular situation. In a sense, the encoding of theme moves the emotional argument of the story from the general to the specific. It the argument is made strongly enough, it may influence attitudes in areas far beyond the specific, but to be made strongly, it must limit its scope to precise encoding.

If our thematic conflict is Morality vs. Self-interest, for example, it would be a mistake to try and argue that Morality is always better than Self-Interest. In fact, there would be few people whose life experience would not tell them that sometimes Self-Interest is the better of the two. Keep in mind here that Dramatica defines Morality as “Doing for others with no regard for self” and Self-Interest as “Doing for self with no regard for others.” This doesn’t mean a Self-Interested person is out hurt to others, but simply that what happens to others, good or bad, is not even a consideration.

As an example, Morality might be better if one has plenty of food to share during a harsh winter and does so. Morality might be worse if one subjugates one’s life rather than displease one’s peers. Self-Interest might be better if a crazed maniac is charging at you and you kill him with an ax. Self-Interest might be bad if you won’t share the last of the penicillin in case you might need it later. It really all depends on the context.

Unfolding Your Thematic Topic

The thematic topic is the subject matter of your story, such as “death,” or “man’s inhumanity to man.” No matter what topic you will be exploring, it will contain large issues, small issues, and everything in between.

In Act One, you need to introduce and establish your theme so that your readers or audience gets a sense of the kinds of issues you’ll be exploring. To do this, you have three different approaches available.

1. You could outline the scope of your subject matter with one or more large, definitive dramatic moments. Then, in acts two and three, you would gradually fill in smaller and smaller details, adding nuance and shading to the overall topic as the story progresses. This system is best when trying to apply topics that are often seen objectively or impersonally to everyday life.

2. Conversely, you could begin with the details in Act One, then move to larger concerns as the story progresses. This is a good way to elevate topics dealing with commonplace, mundane, or work-a-day issues to philosophical or global importance.

3. Finally, you could mix it up, presenting a blend of issues ranging from the large to the small in every act. This creates a feeling that the topic is an area to explore, rather than a statement to be understood.

Whichever approach you take, the pattern needs to be set up in Act One so your reader or audience can follow. So determine which approach you wish to take and then create specific examples that illustrate your topic, both in a large and small way.

Finally, pepper these examples into each act as the scope of your topic broadens, narrows, or contrasts the two extremes as it goes.

Postscript

I hope you have enjoyed these articles on theme.  If so, please stop by my web site at Storymind.com for many more.  And while you are there, try free demos of our software products for writers to help you develop your story’s world, who’s in it, what happens to them, and what it all means.

Melanie Anne Phillips

A Few Words About Theme

Copyright Melanie Anne Phillips

Published by Storymind Press

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