Theme and Why it is (Sometimes) Not Terrifying

Let’s talk about theme. Merriam-Webster defines theme as “a subject of discourse or of artistic representation” (Merriam Webster) Theme, we learn, is probably the most important part of a book.

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Writing Deep Scenes, a writing guide by Martha Alderson and Jordan Rosenfeld, is a deeper look at a fairly simple concept – books, for the most part, include action, emotional journeys, and themes, and all of these things develop as the book goes on. It offers ideas for scene types, descriptions of how character’s emotional journeys often go in books, and descriptions of how themes often develop. It makes thinking about books fairly easy (writing them is an entirely different matter, of course), includes plenty of examples to enforce its message, and is overall probably an incredibly helpful book.






However, I, being one to make problems where there shouldn’t really be any, took one look at the description on the page (“Plotting Your Story Through Action, Emotion, & Theme”) and panicked. How was I supposed to understand emotion well enough to plot it out? And theme – which I only really knew from English exams – was hard, wasn’t it? The idea of having to weave together a masterpiece with a perfectly clear theme felt terrifying, it felt less like how I’d experienced writing in the past and more like writing an essay with some creative flourishes. I decided that the concept would just confuse me and to this day have not read more than a few random parts of the book despite realizing that my first impression was probably wrong.

So let’s talk about theme.  Merriam-Webster defines theme as “a subject of discourse or of artistic representation.” Theme, we learn, is probably the most important part of a book. Everything in school seems to come down to theme. The characters become pawns for the theme, acting out their stories in order to demonstrate to us the evil of humans, or that there’s always hope or whatever. It becomes the pinnacle of the book, the entire purpose for reading. If you don’t understand the theme, then you don’t understand the book at all.



This left me with the impression that, in order to write a book, you had to have lofty goals. From the moment you started, you had your theme, and you cleverly put everything together so that teachers everywhere could unravel it. I have since realized that a book’s theme doesn’t have to be lofty, that it doesn’t have to be the only part of the book you ever focus on. Maybe themes can emerge naturally, grow out of what you choose to write about on their own. I don’t know where I decided that themes had to be huge and complex. Since theme is a subject, can’t it really be anything? Does this thought come because we only read certain types of books in school, where theme seems to matter most? I think, at least for me, that is at least partially why. (Really, what does lofty even mean anyway?)

Still, it might be helpful to have an idea of what that is. If you list some random ideas that might be taken as themes, you can be aware of their presence and play off of it for ideas. The themes will begin serving your purpose instead of you having to serve theirs! Maybe they’re less of an overlord and more of a tool.

Why do we focus so much on them, though? Why does it always seem that books have to have one significant message and nothing else? I like pulling apart writing and looking for small instances that I can enjoy, can relate to. When I started taking creative writing classes, I loved reading for them because I could take what I wanted from the books; I could look and see that it was made up of a bunch of smaller parts. When you look at it on a smaller level, theme becomes more complicated. Maybe there are a thousand little themes on every page, something you briefly see in a section before it’s replaced by a new topic, a new event. Maybe the overarching single theme isn’t the only part you have to focus on, the lifeblood of the book. Is there really just one section that we can declare as the most important?

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