One of the hardest things for a writer to learn is theme. Many people — even experienced and well-published authors — shy away from even thinking about it, let alone discussing it. But theme is there whether you like it or not.
But what is it? Well, it depends on who you ask. Some people seem to think it is something that writers impose on story, as if it were somehow external to the narrative. But theme is ultimately why we write. How could it possibly be separate from the stories we tell?
Writers often say: “I have to write” as if it were some sort of drug addiction or disease, as if this compulsion to put words on paper or screen weren’t part of our deepest psychology. We write— especially those of us who write fiction— because we have an argument with the world. Life has failed to meet our expectations or answer our deepest questions and so we explore the possibilities in words.
Of course, for some of us, our deepest questions are pretty shallow but that doesn’t mean we don’t want them answered.
So theme arises from what we see as wrong with the world. But that’s pretty vague and not really helpful when it comes to a specific story. Most of us have lots of things that bug us about the world and it is the lack of clarity about which one we are tackling that often gets us into trouble as writers.
During the process of writing, things comes to us, Characters want to do things. Sometimes, in moments of weakness, we let them. When we don’t know exactly what we’re trying to say, anything goes. Thematic clarity helps, though often we only fix our mistakes (that is, remove parts of the story, maybe to use somewhere else) during the edits. So if you don’t think about theme before you write the first draft you will always be forced to do so in the re-writes.
For example, when I wrote Defining Diana I knew what I wanted to explore. What is it that makes us who we are? Is it upbringing or genetics, class or gender or race? Or is it some ineffable quality that emerges from all those things? Throughout the book — which is a near future, cyberpunk, murder mystery dystopia — I delve into the structure of the personality: how it is built up and how it is broken down. I’m not sure I came to any conclusions but those central questions drove the narrative and helped me keep it on track.
When I wrote the next two books in the series, it was easy to frame the thematic narrative as: what is a family and what is a community? Those themes both helped structure the novels but also informed the specific plot elements and character arcs of the books.
Theme is not always the easiest thing to figure out but it may be the most important. It might be described as answering these three questions: What problem do I have with the world? Who of my characters is most impacted by it? What are the consequences for them of trying to face it?
But that’s ten minutes.