What Does James Scott Bell Have To Say About Theme?

I’ve been studying a book by Larry Brooks called Story Engineering: Mastering the Six Core Competencies of Successful Writing. When I got to the chapter on theme, I found my eyes glazing over as I read. I didn’t get it. Theme isn’t tangible, like a character’s hair color or a villain’s choice of weaponry, and understanding intangible things isn’t part of my skills set. So I went to my personal library and grabbed a couple of books that had something to say about theme. James Scott Bell’s book Revision & Self-Editing had an entire chapter devoted to the subject, so I had to check it out and pass along to you my new-found wisdom.

Bell says theme is a big idea, a message that the story contains. “Look to the characters, and what they’re fighting for, and you’ll find the theme of your story.”

That doesn’t sound too hard. Then he says something even more comforting: “Don’t worry about theme. Worry about struggle. Give your characters humanity and passionate commitment to a set of values. Set them in conflict and as they fight, the theme will take care of itself.” I love that last part! It will take care of itself. I don’t have to worry about…

Then I remembered that Larry Brooks said that we shouldn’t let theme just happen — we should consciously build it into our stories, or we might end up with a mess. Which is correct? Build it myself, or let it happen?

If I’m understand these men correctly, it’s a bit of both. Bell says to build my hero with depth, passion, and a strong worldview. Then, when the conflict comes, the hero will react based on these beliefs. Out of that emerges theme. Theme will shine through the main character’s dialogue and inner monologues. Theme will be reflected in the metaphors and symbols I choose (if they’re chosen well and truly reflect the hero). Theme will resonate in the last chapter, in the last sentence. Theme will Be There. And it didn’t “just happen,” because I worked on building those meanings, those messages, into the hero’s make-up.

Bell ends the chapter with three exercises. I couldn’t actually do the first one, but something in the instructions grabbed me. It goes like this: “Many of us hated ‘theme’ exercises in literature class.” (I totally agree with this statement — I loathed them. I usually copied off the kid in front of me.) Then came the most important part: “Maybe this is because there’s so much debate about themes. Critics often disagree about a book’s meaning.” What a reassuring thing to hear! If the *critics* can’t nail down theme, how can I? I’m not using that as a cop-out. I’m putting extra effort into identifying the theme of my book. But it’s good to know I probably won’t get it wrong. The critics can disagree all they want about the theme of my book, and that won’t bother me a bit.

I’ve got more to share, so stay tuned.

-Sonja
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