A Word About Theme

“There are patterns which emerge in one’s life, circling and returning anew, an endless variation of a theme.”

 ― Jacqueline Carey, Kushiel’s Chosen

As a continuation of the previous post on my frontispiece quote, I would like to talk a little bit about theme. Theme is not to be confused with plot, which has to do with the action of your story. Theme, rather, is the meaning of your story. It’s what your story is about. It’s some statement about life that you believe to be true, or some statement about your own life and the truth of what you have experienced.

Sometimes that meaning can be encapsulated into an aphorism the way that Aesop did—like in the fable about the race between the tortoise and the hare where we learn that the moral of the story is “slow and steady wins the race.”

The theme of a longer literary work, however, is usually not spelled out so clearly. Usually it is more subtle—something that is expressed throughout the work in a variety of ways and often through a variety of characters, something you may not even be able to articulate but you feel the truth of it so deeply and so intensely that you know it intuitively. In so moving you, the theme is validated.

If you want to explore this further, here is a short but helpful article in Writer’s Digest on theme that comes from an excerpt in Larry Brooks’ book, Story Engineering (http://www.writersdigest.com/tip-of-the-day/exploring-theme-a-key-component-to-successful-writing).

The important thing to understand about themes is that they in some way reflect who you are as a writer. Most often a theme comes out of a subject or a character that you feel drawn to. This experience of being drawn to certain stories is the theme in you reverberating with a similar theme you see outside of you.

As such, the theme is not so much deductively imposed on the material you are working on but arises out of the material more inductively. Often writers not even aware of this attraction in ways they can immediately articulate. Robert Frost, for example, was once asked where he got the ideas for his poems. He replied, “Invariably, it starts with a lump in the throat.”

I love that, don’t you? A lump in the throat. Isn’t that where all works of art should come from, from something that moves us so deeply that we have to use words or paint or musical notes or steps of a dance to capture it and hold it long enough so we can understand it.

Often artists return to the same themes or to a few kindred themes that are closely related. As Jacqueline Carey said in the quote at the beginning of this post: “There are patterns which emerge in one’s life, circling and returning anew, an endless variation of a theme.”

So how do you find out what themes reside within you?

Look at your life. Look at it as a story. Look at the scenes, the moments, the encounters. Walk through your house. Notice everything. The books on your shelf. The DVDs in your film library. The CDs you take with you in your car. Notice the specific songs you love, the particular singers or groups you are drawn to, the genre of the music even. All these things say something about you, about where you have been and what you experienced along the way.

Look at the art in your home. Or the photographs. The color of paint on the walls. The type of furniture. The activities you’re involved in. The magazines you have on the coffee table. The specific articles in those magazines that you have read and re-read.

Do that with everything around you, including the friends you surround yourself with.

Now ask why?

Why, for example, is Elephant Man among my top favorite films? Why is Camelot? Why is Hoosiers? Why is Wizard of Oz? Those movies resonate with themes in my life.

Why is Simon and Garfunkel my favorite group? And when the duo broke up and when their separate ways, why did I follow Garfunkel and not Simon?

The answers to those questions reveal something of the secret of who I am . . . and something of the secret of who you are.



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