That of theme is an essential concept in creative writing. In fact, it can give a work of fiction depth and resonance beyond belief.
However, it is important to make sure we know what a theme really is.
In particular we must pay attention not to confuse it with the subject of a story.
For example, in the Lord of the Rings Frodo must travel to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring, the only able to rule the other Rings of Power. We can therefore say that the battle for power is the subject of the story.
Instead, the main theme of The Lord of the Rings (or rather one of its main themes) has to do with the inherent ability power has to corrupt who wields it.
To make things clearer, just think of a book about the war. In such a case the war would be the subject of the book.
Instead, the take of the author on such a subject would be the theme. For example, some authors might decide to explore the theme of the inevitability of war, some others might focus on the loss and pain war causes, yet some others might decide to depict war like an opportunity–you get the idea.
Obviously, in a novel themes can be more than one. Besides, while some may be quite prominent, others might be only briefly touched upon.
How to find the theme in your stories–my take
When I write, I work hard to make sure my stories flow as smoothly as possible, and that I don’t repeat the same ideas over and over. During my first draft I don’t pay any particular attention to any theme at all. I just write, write, and write some more.
I write because I have stories I want to tell–I have stories I need to tell. However, even if I don’t necessarily write because I want to make a point about some particular subject, more often than not I end up making a lot of points all the same.
This is fine if it just happens. Serendipity is a term on the rise. You can call it any way you want. What matters is that you wrote your first draft thinking only about the story.
I’m saying this for a simple reason. In my experience, every time I ever tried to write a story because I wanted to make a point, I ended up either abandoning the story halfway through, or, on those rare occasions I ended it, with a major fiasco.
As a matter of fact, I discovered that instead of starting out with an idea about the point I want to make, it’s a lot more effective to follow the opposite process.
This means I let that part of my mind that is essentially devoted to reading find the ideas and the stories she wants to read about. Not because they are deep or profound or who knows what else. But just because they seem interesting.
For example, just think about the following scenario.
All of a sudden water stops coming out from the faucets in James’ apartment. And the girl he has been after over the past few months has finally accepted his invite to come over to listen to some good music. The only problem is James has just got back home from the gym and reeks like hell. He needs to shower and he can’t.
This setting is banal. Of course it is. But if properly treated it can also unearth interesting aspects of our modern way of life. Here lie several themes that could be explored. For example, the way we take for granted way too many things–like running water at will; the way bodily smells are becoming sort of taboos in our society; or how desperate we are for some meaningful relationship.
However, as I said, these days I never write with any theme in mind. I just let the situation play out by itself.
One moment I don’t know what my protagonist is going to do, and a moment later I see him going down in the basement with a bucket in his hand–the reasoning being that maybe it’s a matter of pressure and so down there could find the water he needs so much. But then, as soon as James leaves his apartment, water starts to pour down from the shower. Because, you see, he was in such a hurry he left it open… and now Claire the blonde who lives on the third floor stops him to ask him questions about the gym he goes to…
Digging up the fossil – building the T-rex
Only when the first draft is finished I set about to find out what are the points my story makes–that is, if there are such points.
Stephen King in On Writing describes this process as digging up the fossil. He is absolutely right about that. Because it’s only when you have finished your first draft that you can begin to notice what the story is really about, and you can move from how to find the theme in your story to how to adequately showcase it.
Because, as writers, we have the opportunity not only of digging out the fossil, but also of recreating the damn whole dinosaur. If we want to, we can make it a big and mean T-Rex.
Because our story has to bite hard if we want to have at least a chance of leaving a mark in our readers’ mind. And what could ever possibly be better than teeth marks? Sure, metaphorical as you will, but still T-Rex teeth.