Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 12: Theme

For the first time in eleven episodes, we have a “normal” one. No special guests, no special locations, and no new format tricks. This episode grows out of Howard’s ignorance – remember back in Episode 10 when Howard called “can of worms” on “theme?” Well, we open the can for this entire episode.

What is theme? Is it something the author must consciously include? Is it something the reader must successfully identify? How can writing to a particular theme help your work? How can it hurt? How can writers avoid thematic pitfalls?  We discuss examples from other writers, and from our own work (especially Brandon’s.)

This week’s Writing Excuses is brought to you by Dave Farland’s Novel-Writing Workshop.

Writing Prompt: Write a short story that has no theme. No deeper meaning. Nothin’.


25 thoughts on “Writing Excuses Season 2 Episode 12: Theme”

  1. Dan Brown had themes? G – ahem – certain authors that may or may not have been named in this week’s ‘cast certainly beat their readers over the head with thematic concerns, but the only thing I remember Brown beating me over the head with was infodumps.

    I could be wrong…

    Anyway. The question at the end was “should you try to be didactic”, and I think that that’s a little different than “should you try to be conscious of theme in your work”. I’d say no to the first and yes to the second.

    I don’t think it’s an absolute must, since themes can certainly grow out of a work whether or not you’re thinking about them, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with stories that are kind of fluffy (for lack of a better word) if they have other things going for them.

    But as you guys noted, theme can take a story up a notch, and it’s hard to capitalize on those opportunities if you’re not aware of what you’re doing. (And, it’s hard to know when you’re doing too much if you’re not aware of what you’re doing.)

    Something I’m finding a lot lately is that theme can also make a wonderful starting point, sometimes not just for one story, but several. And I find that writing a story inspired by a theme really raises awareness of all those caveats you guys mentioned in the podcast.

    So yeah, I think it helps to be conscious of the ways you express things like that in your work. It’s great to be able to read something that’s just a good yarn, but it’s even better to be able to read something as a good yarn, but come back to it later and take away something more than just its aesthetic value.

    (Geez. We readers don’t want much, do we?)

    Thanks for the ‘cast, guys. Even if the last couple lines nearly made me choke on my drink from laughing.

  2. Aloha. Jack here and I think it’s about time I actually started commenting on these. I have been listening to these podcasts since the very first episode yet I’ve never actually posted any feedback because I never got around to it. I have found these to be insanely helpful and I’ve long since gotten into the habit of anxiously awaiting each new addition week after week. Either way, I figured it’d be better late than never to make some kind of introduction and say hello; so, well, aloha!

    Oh – oh – oh

    See what I did there? ;P
    Anyway. Awesome stuff guys. Thanks a bunch.

    – Jack

  3. An even better challenge:

    Write a story with absolutely no themes or inner meaning — which is _also_ a good read.

    After it’s done, backup the original, then go back through and ADD a theme.

  4. Theme is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I am in the middle of writing a story and a friend of mine is doing the edits asked me what theme and message I wanted my book to have. I was really confused by this at first because my book isn’t even close to being done. I like to let my characters find their own theme by what they are passionate about and what motivates them and follow it from there. At the stage where I’m at, I have still developing the plot and writing out various scenes. I don’t think I have enough to really say “The theme of my book is…”

    When I’m finished, I’d like to be able to have readers say that it was a good story and that it had well developed, yet subtle, underlying themes. I don’t want my readers to finish the book and say, I learned about XYZ. I’d rather them say, I learned XYZ about myself based on how much they were drawn into the story.

    I hope that makes as much sense written out as it did in my head.

  5. Seconding the qualification that it be a good read. I managed to write something that, at the very least, has nothing associated with the main ‘character’, but I stopped at just over six hundred words because I couldn’t bear to hold out on the ‘twist ending’ any longer, or stand to write much more didactically fluffy stuff, or imagine anybody reading anything like it that was longer than two pages.

    (Yes, didactically fluffy. It’s sort of the literary equivalent of steel wool, or something.)

  6. I think that the key to writing science fiction with strong, well-done thematic elements is to approach your work like a thought experiment. Instead of saying “I’m going to show such and such theme in my works” or “I’m going to answer such and such question,” it works best when you say “how can I pose this question in my story?” or “what variable can I add that will test for such and such thematic issue?”

    If you try consciously to add a thematic element in the story, I think you risk creating a world that is too shallow to be universal. A good, thematic story like Ender’s Game, Foundation, or The Neverending Story will have layers of meaning, so that you can pull out the meaning that helps you to best understand the world from your unique, individual situation. When I read The Neverending Story as a child, it opened my eyes in ways that were meaningful to me then, but when I read it as an adult, I saw a whole new set of truths that I hadn’t seen before, because they weren’t what I needed or what I was ready for when I was a child.

    The key, I think, is to focus on creating a world that his honest, and let your subconscious deal with answering the big thematic questions. A world that is vast enough to be believable will have more room for multiple meanings than a world that only exists to portray your narrow answer on a thematic question. The best science fiction and fantasy that I’ve ready–the stuff that rings true and has profoundly impacted my life–does it by creating a vast world full of believable, honest characters, taking me there, and showing what happens when you throw in a new variable, crisis, problem, or piece of information.

  7. Between the Lines by Jessica Page Morrell has a good bit in it about Theme and Premise- she has theme be a general concept and premise be a specific stance or statement on that concept. Essentially once you find your theme/premise you can use your side plots to explore other premises within the same theme, or explore similar/contrasting themes. This can give a story a tighter focus. I imagine this is similar to what happens in Mistborn 3 (I haven’t read it yet, but I do own it. Don’t hate me!)

    I agree about not letting a theme become the dominant force in the story. In most fiction the story is about the characters, and the conflicts that the characters go through will naturally have themes (innocence lost, the cost of war/peace, etc) but letting the theme drive the story is essentially like letting a cliched plot drive the story. It will become predictable and tired very quickly. Just like going in with an idea of what is “the correct answer” for a theme will make the story feel preachy even if the reader was sympathetic to the cause from the start.

  8. I always think that discussions of theme are interesting. When I got my art degree–all the professors and students were against theme and images having meaning. When I got my psychology degree the professors and students taught that something has to have meaning to be memorable. When I wrote super-short children’s stories for a early literacy project, all of my stories had to have a theme and meaning otherwise most of the children would not remember it. From what I understood, there is a growing amount of research in the scientific realm that speculates stories need to have themes and meaning, emphasis being on meaning, to be memorable.

    Then of course, I remember my art history classes and several movements of contemporary art that sought to eliminate theme or meaning in art. If I remember correctly, they were short-lived movements.

  9. Theme has a dozen definitions and I haven’t found any of them to be useful to me as a writer or reader.

    Theme is what the character learns working out the problem of the story…
    Theme is the point of the story, the lesson, the moral…
    Theme is the generalized situation the character finds himself in…
    Theme is the underlying idea…
    Theme is what the story’s about on a deep level…
    Theme is a statement about life…
    Theme is the repeating issue…

    I’ve given up on theme as a writer. I gave up on it as a reader while getting my English degree and finding that looking for meaning and theme kept killing the story.

    There’s was a T-rex, ravaging the countryside, and the themesters wanted to reduce it to “nature can be terrible.”


    But there’s a T-Rex, ravinging the countryside. It just bit that dude’s head off…

    Or you read Pride & Prejudice and the themesters want to stop the action and start analyzing–do you see how Mrs. Bennet illustrates…

    No more reality. Just symbols and figures for reality. And then we’d all nod our heads together. Yes, yes, nature can be terrible. Yes, yes, pride can cause problems in relationships. No more people. No more problems. Just intellectual categories and “meaning.”

    And then you’d get the weird-o readings because once we’re abstracted to one level, why not go another? So you get a Freudian reading of Milton (where are the phallic symbols, children?), or a Marxist reading of Daniel Boone, or a hundred other equally deadening intellectual abstractions.

    This is not to say characters don’t learn things in stories (all the Pixar movies are based on this). Or that there aren’t moral choices illustrated (don’t be an idiot–your bachelor ways can never be as fulfilling as long-term commitment to Sandra Bullock). Or that issues aren’t explored (how to become a leader). Or that characters are put in situations that resonate with us on a vital level (loneliness, greed, dealing with mother-in-laws).

    When I boil all the definitions of theme down, I can’t that theme is anything more than a broad statement of the problem. And if that’s the case, then we’re just back to story and inner conflicts and outer ones. It’s just that we’ve abstracted it a bit. Maybe tried to package it in a way so that the problem becomes applicable to more than people who a running away from rampaging T-Rex’s.

    Or am I missing something vital here?

  10. When I was a little girl, I fell in love with the Chronicles of Narnia series. I loved each book and enjoyed reading them. They were among the first books that opened the door to fantasy.

    As an adult, I learned that CS Lewis had written Christian undertones and themes all through the books. I was amazed that I hadn’t noticed them before, the good little Catholic girl that I was reading them. And then it hit me.. The themes were subtle, points made, lessons learned, and (to me) they never once smacked me and said, Hi, I’m Theme! When I re-read the stories, they had a lot more meaning to me because I understood them on more than one level.

    I understand the frustration you feel towards having to dissect books all the time. I am currently in the middle of a Shakespeare class and in 8 weeks, I have so far had to find the hidden meanings in Henry IV Part 1, Richard III, Twelfth Night, and several sonnets. Am I done? Nope.. King Lear , Othello, and the Tempest are on the immediate horizon.

    I’m also working on my degree in English and I know I’m in for more searching of texts. I look forward to it though. Here’s the way I look at it. In order to read my first word, I had to learn the letters and their sounds. Once I learned the parts, I could then put them together. If I learn enough about meanings and themes and subtlety, I can use those tools both as a reader and a writer. Like I mentioned in my above post, I’m not willing to smack the reader in the head to get them to learn a lesson or point from something I write. But if I can have them believe in my story so much that they can see themselves in it, believing what my characters believe, struggling with my characters, I think I’m on the right path Learning how others put their ideas, thoughts, meanings, and events into words and weave them into the story fascinates me. I hope to learn more of that.

    Back to the frustration part.. I think that as a writer, we have something to say, even if we perhaps don’t realize it ourselves at first. The more our characters and story develop, the more the overall theme makes itself apparent.

    Your final definition, though it frustrated you, I think is actually the right one. Theme is the overall statement you are making. The situations, conflicts and problems that are put in the story that make your characters develop support that theme. In the end, your characters will either live up to the theme or they won’t. They’ll either agree with the theme or they won’t. Then the question becomes, which side are they on? :)

  11. Let’s face the facts here: the majority of the world agrees with John Brown, viewing any attempt to analyze literature as a “deadening intellectual abstraction.” When you write a book, most of the people who read it will not only ignore the thematic elements, they will actively despise any attempt to illuminate, explain, or study those elements. And now here’s the tricky part: I believe that those people could not possibly be more wrong in their bullish opposition to literary study, but I also believe that the way they read is perfectly acceptable. They’re going to miss a ton of great stuff (all of the good stuff, as far as I’m concerned), but they’re going to enjoy it, and that’s their choice. That’s why you need to keep your theme from overpowering your story: make it a good story first, and if there’s something else going on under the surface then those readers who care about such things can find them and rejoice in them, without any hassle for anyone else.

    I was seventh grade when a brilliant English teacher (shout out to Mrs. Romney!) taught me the difference between surface reading and deeper reading. We were studying To Kill a Mockingbird, and she was forcing us to look for all the hidden layers and whatnot, and I was grousing and whining about how the “deadening intellectual abstractions” were destroying the purity of a good, well-told story. Then we got to a scene where one of the characters was fighting a crabgrass infestation in her front lawn, and my teacher pointed out that this was a symbol of gossip in the community–it was a pretty ham-fisted symbol, looking back, but for some reason it clicked for me: suddenly the book wasn’t just about one summer in one town, it was about every day in every town, and the way we treat each other and the way our lives are interconnected. It didn’t deaden the book for me at all, it made the entire thing spring to life more vividly than any other good, well-told story I’d ever read before. I became a literary junkie, devoured every book and poem I could find, plumbed them all for hidden layers, and eventually became an English major and a writer.

    The point of the story is that as authors you will have a wide range of readers, with a wide range of tastes and reading styles, and none of them are wrong. You will have plenty of John Browns who want you to skip the symbolism and get to the T-Rex fight, and you will have plenty of Dan Wellses who want to write papers about how the T-Rex fight is actually a post-feminist deconstruction of imperialist politics; to be fair, you’re going to have WAY MORE John Browns, by a very significant margin. But my point is that there is nothing wrong with either kind of reader, or either kind of writer, because the perfect democracy of art makes every work valid in the eyes of those people who appreciate that work. Ideally you’ll be able to meet the needs of many different kinds of people in a single work, which is why we suggest keeping the themes subtle: the surface readers can enjoy it unhindered, and the deeper readers will enjoy it all the more for having to work for it.

    That said, my own hidden layer of snobbery demands that I urge you all to be deeper readers, because you can get so much more out of a story that way. I’ll understand if you don’t want to, but I’ll still urge you to do it.

  12. I always took theme to be: “What are writing about?” Yes, you have plots and twists and other devices at your fingertips. But what are you writing about? When someone asks you what your story is about, what do you tell them? That person Z goes from rags to riches? That this character has to struggle against overwhelming odds? I’ve found that I can’t truly tell what my story is about without adding the theme in.

    I’ve discovered that while my characters are not me, they do contain small pieces of me within themselves. Even my antagonists have those things that I do not like about myself. In having this story populated with characters, who all contain me in them, I come out into the story. I’ll try to mask some of my own personal views by recognizing them but, in the end their in there. Unconsciously my own opinions make up a theme or the themes in my stories. Is there anything wrong with that? I don’t think so. Granted I’d rather not have someone trying to find something that’s just not there, but what can you do?

    I think themes are important, if not to the reader than at least to the writer. Ultimately, that’s who I’m writing for. Me

  13. @PHX, I read the fist book of Narnia (I can’t remember it’s name) while in the fifth grade. I never read anything else by Lewis because I felt he’d hit me in the head far too much with his heavy Christian themes. I am/was a Christian, and it still felt opressive, and one sided to me (as a fifth grader, mind you). Of the other stories you’ve listed, I would agree that they are good at not over doing it, but I can’t say the same for the Chronicles of Narnia.

  14. I actually agree with you, Dan. There’s nothing wrong with readers who like a little symbolism with their blood and gore. Nothing wrong with stories that include it. After all, crabgrass symbols are only a step away from mood details. I’m all for mood resonance. And I’ve even got a few symbols in my upcoming novel, alas.

    I think I have a hard time with these searches for meaning because sometimes an abstract reading is wonderful. But sometimes I think it’s used like a hammer looking for a nail.

    So back to my original question: is theme something different from plot. Or is it really just the conflict or core plot problem abstracted? Looking at Brandon’s theme of leadership in the Mistborn books, that was simply a core issue Elend was dealing with.
    I ask this because if theme really is the core conflict, then all books have a theme by default.

    So what’s the difference between those stories we clearly see have a theme and those that have one but resist theme analysis?

    I remember watching Les Miserables with Anthony Perkin for the first time. The moral came through loud and clear. And it was one of the most powerful stories I’ve ever experienced. The moral, of course, was the conflict abstracted.

    So what did they do to make that conflict/theme so poignant that wasn’t done in Alien? Or is it that some problems lend themselves to it and some don’t?

  15. (So, this post is kind of all over the place, sorry. I started to respond, went away and did something else, came back and there were more responses…)

    You know, John, maybe that’s another way of looking at theme. In the ‘cast and the discussion there’ve been a lot of cautionary words flying around about writing theme, and I think our podcasters have done a great job (as always) covering how to avoid the pitfalls of didacticism and hamfistedness. (Are either of those actual words? Well, they are now.)

    But maybe we could also say that the problem with working with theme, as a reader or a writer, begins when a story is reduced to theme, instead of theme occuring complementary to the story. If you’re telling the theme instead of the story of course you’re going to end up with something that’s ridiculously clunky or didactic. If you’re reading only for the underlying meanings, of course you’re going to end up with something that’s wildly reductive.

    I don’t know, it also feels kind of reductive to me to say that theme is just a restatement of the conflict, though obviously it’s got to be related to the conflict or it won’t make a whole lot of sense. The idea that themes are a universalized aspect of the conflict makes a lot of sense, but again, it seems to me that thematic concerns are more than just repeat information.

    I don’t think we can say that theme is just the core conflict distilled, though that will probably be present in any story by default. But a story can have a lot of different themes which, aren’t all going to be at the heart of the conflict. To me, a theme is an abstract idea that’s explored throughout the story, probably in a variety of ways.

    I think themes can be a little more nebulous than we’re making them here. It seems like there’s a lot of focus on didacticism and morals and lessons (reducing Jurassic Park to “nature is bad”) which I don’t thin is the case. One of the themes I’ve worked a lot with myself lately is memory, and the hold it has on us. It’s not a lesson or an answer or even really a question. Or, to talk about work that someone might actually have heard of: Guy Gavriel Kay’s duology The Sarantine Mosaic has a very strong theme (and I’m picking one of many) about art: enduring art, ephemeral art, what constitutes art to begin with. I suppose that’s a question, but it’s not a lesson. Kay’s work in general is, I think, a fantastic example of someone who obviously, consciously uses theme in his work. When I say “obviously” I don’t mean he takes a bludgeon and beats you with it, because he certainly doesn’t, but the way he integrates his themes is very deliberate. It’s a craft.

    I think that “moral” themes tend to come out so strong for us because they’re obvious. Or, if not obvious, they’re the easiest to point to as being a “theme”. But it seems to me a lot of expressing theme is pairing it with conflict and plot but also imagery or setting or whatever else might match your theme.

    I actually haven’t seen either Alien or Les Mis (darn my tendency to not watch movies) so I’ll end my lame answer here.

    Also: I am also an English student and intellectual gratification and abstraction is the bane of my existence as well. Whoever dreamed up deconstructionism needs a hobby and a swift kick in the rear.

  16. Theme! One of my favorite topics about writing right there!
    Theme is one of the first things that make it into an outline with me. Mostly because it helps to set the tone for the story. (If one topic is Nietzsche’s abyss, you better not be writing humorous fantasy…)
    But I also think theme must come from the characters. I’d never insert hidden symbols that redefine the nature of the book for the reader, once discovered. That’s like a plot-twist that nearly nobody cares about. (Only these literary geeks :P)
    But themes directly tied to the characters are what make a good story great, I think.
    I also don’t see them as method to teach codes of morale to the reader and more as showing basic truths about humanity… but then again, that might just be me and my hobby of psychology…

  17. Please talk more about stories which are readerly or writerly (spl?). I have read several books on writing, but have never heard of this concept. What are some examples of each? Is it bad or good to consider this as an important part of my stories? How would one go about writing a story which is purposely one of these? Here’s your podcasting prompt (lol) please fit in some discussion on readerly and writerly!

  18. Hello Gentlemen!

    I have to say, not really knowing an overarching theme for the book I’m working on right now, I know a couple themes I want to bring out with my main charachter, which may lead to an overall theme. I like that idea! Thanks, guys! Great podcast and very informative!

    Just a random question: I’m in a small writing group in Boise (three people) and there are two people who were friends long before the group formed and one of them seems to “take charge” of the direction of the group. We all want to publish and are serious in our efforts, but this one person seems to just want to learn by doing and is very stubborn in accepting information I’ve recieved from actual, published wirters.

    (Thanks, Brandon. I still would like a call-in q &a if you can. If fame hasn’t quashed the offer). How do you still give info to those who may want it without getting in someone’s way? Does any of you know about good ways or avenues to take (anthologies etc) to publish poetry? One of the people in my group wants to publish poems.

    Thank you guys again!
    Mike Shaffer

  19. “Nobody, I think, ought to read poetry, or look at pictures or statues, who cannot find a great deal more in them than the poet or artist has actually expressed.”
    — Hawthorne

  20. I think of theme as anything meaningful in the story beyond X happens so that Y can happen so that Z happens. I’m not a literary critic, I don’t have an English degree, and I don’t read fiction to look for the underlying symbolism and whatever, but if I can’t pull out any other meaning from the story than “stuff happens, the end,” I am very disappointed.

    The thing is, though, that my thematic reading of the story might be very different from someone else’s, and I think that in a good story, many different possible themes can be extrapolated, each one related but each one different according to the reader. Thus, what we see as a story’s theme says something about the reader as well as the work itself–which makes sense, because to write fiction is to collaborate with the reader; a story does not exist in a vacuum.

    However, since theme isn’t something hard and fast for everyone else, I think of it as something that’s done better when you aren’t focusing a lot of conscious effort on it. IMO, it works best when it comes out subconsciously, both when you’re writing it and when you’re reading it. I agree with the advice on this podcast.

  21. If it doesn’t have meaning, it’s worthless. Art is a reflection of society. If your work of fiction has no meaning, then it has no purpose.

  22. I heard the term Elend and immediately stopped the podcast. Especially since I’m only reading the Final Empire now.

  23. Ha ha, thank you John, loved your first post, but also found myself agreeing with aspects of Dan’s reply.

    To walk the middle ground I think it is ultimately about freedom of choice. Some people read to be carried along by the story (or the characters) and putting effort into decoding a theme may not be what they want from a book. Clearly that is their choice. They may come back and read a novel again and take different things from it depending on their age, experience and what life has taught them in the intervening period. They may recommend the book to someone who gets much more from it than they did. Different people see stories differently, but an effective theme must surely be one that delivers its message without feeling like a theme at all.

    And another thing, please leave my commitment to Sandra out of this ; )

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