by Sylvie Kurtz
Merriam-Webster defines theme as “something laid down; a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation; a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern; a written exercise; a melodic subject of a musical composition or movement.”
Blake Snyder in Save the Cat defines theme as “a debate about the pros and cons of a particular point of view.”
John Truby’s definition in The Anatomy of Story follows along the same line: “I don’t refer to theme as subject matter. Theme is the author’s view of how to act in the world. It is your moral vision.”
Cutting a Diamond
I once heard someone describe writing a story as cutting a diamond. Every facet enhances the core stone. Every cut serves to make the final product more brilliant. To me, theme isn’t necessarily my view of how to act in the world, but my various characters’ views of how to act in the world. By having characters represent different views, whether I agree with them or not, I can create a fuller picture of that particular exploration.
Theme comes from the main character’s personal change from the beginning of the story to the end of the story. What is he going to learn as he goes through your story’s journey?
For example, in A Little Christmas Magic, the story explores my various characters’ views of how to deal with grief. The prism of living and dying reflects these views. Every scene addresses living, dying, and grief in one way or another.
Why This Story?
You use your story’s basic arc to set up the theme you want to explore. Each waypoint along the journey offers a new glimpse—a chance to debate, to question, to reform. Why has this character gone through these particular escalating problems to reach this unique moment of crisis? What values and beliefs are being put to the test by your story’s torturous road?
In A Little Christmas Magic, Logan and Beth have gone through these conflicts to rediscover their ability to love and to live fully.
How did I get there? By figuring out what’s important to these characters. What do they want to avoid? What are they most afraid to face? Fear becomes the driver of their behavior. Because Logan doesn’t want to hurt anymore, he chooses to isolate himself far from home. Because Beth doesn’t want to feel pain anymore, she throws herself into so much activity that she won’t have time to think, let alone feel. Both are dealing with the death of a loved one. Both are handling the situation in different ways. This concentrates the story around the theme of “how to deal with grief.” Other characters continue to etch the story diamond by offering their views on the subject.
Go Personal to find the Universal
The more universal you can make your theme, the more your readers will connect with your story. Even if we haven’t lost a daughter or a husband, we’ve lost someone or something important in our lives and have gone through the pain of grief. By tying the action of your characters to your theme, both gain power and purpose and build the suspense, because the reader is emotionally involved.
By allowing your theme to challenge your main character’s fear and show him, through other characters’ views and actions, a different way to act, he can challenge those fears and grow, creating a diamond-bright story that stays with your readers.
© Sylvie Kurtz, September 2008
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