So what is theme?
A theme is a guiding principle. Not quite a mantra; it’s not that easy to compartmentalize. More like a common thread. A running gag, without the humor. A theme holds things together that otherwise might fall apart. It’s an implied connection between items that might otherwise seem disparate.
Consider a well-planned party. There should be a theme to everything at that party, right? Instead of separately noticing the music, the decor, and the dress code, all three should harmonize as a cohesive whole. Once a party has a theme, finding new little touches — cool ways to harmonize additional elements, thus deepening the mood — becomes easy.
If it’s a 50’s be-bop party, you might not use plates to serve food; you might put hors d’oeuvres on LP records instead. If it’s a black and white party, it’s clear you shouldn’t serve rainbow sherbet; serve Klondike bars instead.
Theme makes decision-making easy because it is simpler to see elements within an infinity of choices. Then you can say, “Yes, this is the one that belongs.” When theme is solid and one element doesn’t fit — we’re looking at you, rainbow sherbet — that ill-fit becomes clear as day.
In fiction, theme shows itself as if its elements were arrows pointing in the same direction. The theme of Titanic is that true love transcends all. Note that we didn’t say it conquers all, because it sure didn’t conquer that icy water at the end. But it transcends class differences, the rules of “respectable” society — even death, as it’s clear Rose never forgot Jack.
Knowing their theme, the creators of Titanic knew which choices to make. If they’d meant for love to conquer all, Jack wouldn’t have drowned and they’d have lived happily ever after. But instead, love transcended all. That meant Jack could die, so long as he did it to keep Rose alive.
Tipping our hats to the quote that starts this chapter, the theme of the second Matrix movie is: we exist for a purpose, but free will still always wins the day. The entire movie is about the battle between free will and determinism, right down to the forces’ personifications in two competing characters, the Oracle and the Architect. The Architect’s rigid plan is deterministic, yet reluctantly allowed for the “disease” of human choice. In the Architect’s world, everything happens like clockwork, right down to the mind of The One. But Neo defies reality to save Trinity, believing naively that his desire will be enough.
Or is it naive? Not given the movie’s theme.
Ditto the speeches and actions of the Merovingian, who believes only in cause and effect.
Ditto Morpheus, who is a man of pure — almost blind — faith.
Ditto Smith, who is caught in the middle. Does he no longer have a purpose since Neo “unplugged” him … or is his purpose, by contrast, inexorably tied to Neo himself — as his opposite, the other half of a willfully-unbalanced equation?
Watch any good movie and you’ll see theme pervading it like a symbiote. Every choice is made through the lens of that theme. Choices that obey it are rewarded. Those that defy it are punished.
Good characters make choices that are thematically-aligned — except when they slip, per the plot’s inevitable ups and downs, and thereafter learn their lesson. Bad characters always make thematically inappropriate choices. Want to be branded a pariah in a moviegoer’s eyes? Be a character who sees what the theme is saying, but gives it the middle finger.
A theme is a recurring element, yes, but it’s also typically a moral or lesson. There are themes with no judgment (man vs. nature), but this is your life, dammit, so for God’s sake force your theme to choose a side. Movies and books that are afraid to say something are bland. They offend nobody, but they’re not all that worth paying attention to.
We’ve already covered genre, tone, voice, hooks, characters, setting, arcs, and plot — and only now are we considering theme. You might be wondering why. If theme is such an important cohesive, meaning-giving element, why not consider it right from the start of your story?
The answer is one of priorities. If we could steal from On Writing again (Why not? This section has a Stephen King theme, anyway), King says starting with theme is a recipe for bad fiction. Authors who do that tend to make grandiose plans that, once on the page, come across as pretentious.
I’m going to write about conquering prejudice! they announce with puffed chests, holding their quills aloft. Then they craft prejudicial characters and non-prejudicial characters to prove their point, set the story somewhere rife with racists, and stuff the narrative with incidents where bigots and the enlightened collide. There’s probably a hayseed sheriff in there, too. Why not?
Then instead of a story we have a cardboard cliché. Characters are one dimensional, the storyline sounds contrived, and the setting was stale a thousand times ago.
Theme matters, but it should only come after the characters have spoken and the tale is told, to bind and align, and to give the overall package something to root for.
Story always comes first. It’s true in good fiction and in life. Because while people have goals and participate in relationships and take actions, not once in the history of time and space has someone started his life and thought, I think I shall be a bigot today. Nor has anyone thought, You know what I’m about? True love. I think I’ll dedicate myself to it.
Nobody’s born twirling mustaches because they think beauty is isn’t in the eye of the beholder. Nobody’s born with the goal of getting rich specifically to prove that one can, indeed, buy happiness.
That’s not how good fiction works.
This excerpt was taken out of the book The Story Solution by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant. The Story Solution isn't just about writing, it's about the story of your life. While StoryShop University is hitting on the points that may help you in writing, if you want to take charge of your life and construct your story the way a writer does, The Story Solution is for you.