Theme Is Not Optional

In this discussion of theme:

  • What theme is
  • What it looks like in a complete story
  • Why people cringe at the mention of theme
  • How readers interact with theme
  • And how you can begin thinking about your own themes

I’d like to begin by positing that there is no such thing as a meaningless tattoo. Some may be more meaningful than others. But none are bereft of meaning.

Similarly, there is no such thing as a story lacking a theme. Some may have more sophisticated or layered themes than others, but all stories have themes.

And just as with a tattoo, since meaning is inevitable, might as well put some thought into it.

What is theme?

It’s what your story is about below its surface level. 

Look at this brilliant little flash fiction story, “Wallet,” by Allen Woodman, which we’ll use as a quick exemplar:

Tired of losing his wallet to pickpockets, my father, at seventy, makes a phony one. He stuffs the phony wallet with expired food coupons and losing Florida Lottery tickets and a fortune cookie fortune that reads, “Life is the same old story told over and over.” In a full-length mirror, he tries the wallet in the back pocket of his pants. It hangs out fat with desire. “All oyster,” he says to me, “no pearl.” We drive to the mall where he says he lost the last one. I am the wheelman, left behind in the car, while my father cases a department store. He is an old man trying to act feeble and childlike, and he overdoes it like stage makeup on a community-theater actor. He has even brought a walking stick for special effect. Packages of stretch socks clumsily slip from his fingers. He bends over farther than he has bent in years to retrieve them, allowing the false billfold to rise like a dark wish and he’s grappled by the passing shadow of a hand. Then the unexpected happens. The thief is chased by an attentive salesclerk. Others join in. The thief subdued, the clerk holds up the reclaimed item. “Your wallet, sir… Your wallet.” As she begins opening it, searching for identification, my father runs toward an exit. The worthless articles float to the floor. Now my father is in the car, shouting for me to drive away. There will be time enough for silence and rest. We are both stupid with smiles and he is shouting, “Drive fast, drive fast.” 

The Surface

Now, what is this story about on the surface? A man’s father tries to dupe a would-be pickpocket with a worthless wallet by posing as a feeble elderly man in a department store, but when the ruse is exposed, he flees the scene.

That is, the surface level “aboutness” is simply what happens literally. 

Below the Surface

What is it about below the surface

I’d say it’s about regaining a sense of youth and play. The father is “tired” of the “same old story,” and so he acts “childlike” and “bends over farther than he has bent in years” and ends up “stupid with smiles . . . shouting, ‘Drive fast.’”

It’s a story about the exhilaration one feels upon breaking the rules and subverting expectations. And the expectation of a 70-year-old man is to trade in excitement for serenity; playfulness for “pearls” of wisdom. But sometimes, we want to ditch the pearls for the oyster and return to the thrills of our youth. 

I’d argue that this story is not only fun; it’s memorable. It reverberates afterwards because it’s so adeptly crafted to create a below-the-surface meaning. 

The Problems with Statements of Theme

Let me pause here to say that I taught high school English for 15 years, and I’m aware that

  1. A frequent side-effect of mandatory academic analysis of literature is for students and teachers alike to bullshit their way to thematic statements that are “deep” but often a stretch.
  2. Statements of theme can often be difficult to articulate or recognize, which might suggest that the author didn’t intend such themes and/or that themes have no effect on readers who don’t bother to bring themes to conscious awareness. 

An Apology

So, if you’re the type who is skeptical that themes exist at all, I’d like to apologize on behalf of all English teachers. We have wronged you. Some of us may not have known what we were talking about. Some of us may have professed to understand themes that others had articulated but that we didn’t buy into ourselves. Some of us may have soured you on the whole affair by only accepting a limited number of analyses of a work. 

But C’mon

Let’s be fair: some of us did a great job, but you were a teenager, and you were just too myelin-deprived to recognize that yes, The Great Gatsby is, indeed, about the futility of pursuing the American dream. And it’s also about the impossibility of achieving a Platonic ideal. And it’s also about the simultaneous failure and success of imagination to create reality. And you really should have paid attention, because even if you hated that book, you need to recognize now, as a writer, that it is simply brilliant. 

Multiplicity of Meaning

But that brings me to another point; some discussions of theme give the impression that there is one agreed-upon theme for famous works of literature. A great story has more than one theme. Do you disagree with my analysis above about the theme of “Wallet”? That’s okay. There may be other themes that resonated with you first. 

It’s not always easy to articulate a theme, and that’s as it should be. Fiction writers are creating art, not a math equation. In math or chemistry, a “sentence” should mean one thing and one thing only. But in literary art, meaning should be muti-faceted. A successful piece of literary art allows a reader to see new meanings every time she revisits it. 

Theme As Emotion

And the fact that the themes are not articulated clearly and without controversy within the stories themselves means that the meaning of a piece of literature can be felt by the reader. When meaning is 100% clear, it lives and dies at the level of our conscious awareness. When meaning is subtextual and below-the-surface, it lives in our subconscious and burns like embers rather than a thin strip of paper. Theme is an emotional experience for the reader. 

If a story appeals to you beyond your first encounter with it, if it sticks with you in some way, it’s because that story has some layers of meaning of which you were very likely not conscious after your first experience with the story.  

And it’s okay to remain unconscious of those layers of meaning. You don’t have to articulate them. Ever. You’re not in high school English anymore. 

The Writer’s Responsibility

But if you’re a writer looking to create stories that reverberate for readers after they set the book down, then you may want to be somewhat intentional about theme. 

Does that mean you need to undertake an academic analysis of your own writing? No, not really. You just need to examine what the events of the story mean for the character(s) within it. That’s all theme really is. 

In the case of “Wallet,” the mall adventure [event] for the father [character] meant a chance to live like a teenager—a dash of harmless mischief, a sprinkle of thrill-seeking, and a dose of imagined danger springing from authority figures. It was all so constructed in this case. He wasn’t in trouble. He didn’t really prank anyone. The events meant a chance to be youthful. 

I want to emphasize this very clearly and unambiguously here: when you’re thinking about your story’s themes—which you do not need to do in your initial drafts—you just have to examine what the events of the story mean for your character. That character does not need to be conscious of that meaning. (The father very possibly is not conscious of his desire to revisit his youth.) But there’s meaning in the events nonetheless. 

How to Craft Theme

Crafting theme has a lot to do with understanding character arcs and oppositions. 

The character arc is all about how a character has progressed over the course of the story.

Oppositions are about contrasts, polarities, balanced pairs.  

Begin with your character arcs

To examine them: 

  • List each major character
  • Identify their before and after states (What has changed for each of them?)
  • Figure out which steps along the way produced that change

I seldom encourage writing in abstraction, but for the sake of thinking through your themes, go for it. These are notes. You’re not publishing them. So it’s fine to say that your character began old and tired and ended youthful and exhilarated or began seeking justice for a crime and ended perpetrating a (very) petty crime. 

Mine oppositions

Often, the character arc will present a polarity: opposing before and after states. Begin there when examining opposition, but look for others, too. You’ll see them between characters (usually even among allies).

List the oppositions and the abstract ideas or values that comprise the opposition.

In “The Wallet,” the son presents a subtle opposition in that he’s both younger than his father but also more classically “mature.” He’s not the one hatching the whole ruse. And in fact, he’s amused by his father’s childlike behavior. So this raises questions about age and maturity.

And of course, the thief is the other opposition, making a life out of petty crime but, in this case, getting caught. The father tries out the petty crime and doesn’t get caught. So this raises questions about the transgression and subversion.

Thanks for Reading!

There’s much more we could do with theme, but it all starts with your basic understanding of what the events of the story mean for your character. 

Take a look at my posts on character arcs and cause/effect, both of which may help you examine your own story for its thematic content and ultimately create a story that resonates with readers more effectively. 

I hope that demystifies things a little for you.

What about you? Any tips for how you’ve dealt with theme? Let me know in the comments below. 

And if you can think of a meaningless tattoo, let me know that also.

Here, we examine what theme is, how a story employs it, the effect on readers, and how writers can be intentional about theme. |
Here, we examine what theme is, how a story employs it, the effect on readers, and how writers can be intentional about theme. ::


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