Defining Theme

 Larry Brooks‘s book, Story Engineering, offers six core competencies of a great story. I’ve covered the first two (concept and character). In my last post, I said my next post was going to be more about character. I’ve changed my mind. I’m skipping the rest of the stuff Mr. Brooks said about character and moving straight into the third core competency, which is theme. 

(This is a theme park. Not the same thing as theme. And my friend took this photo, so I don’t have to pay a royalty for using someone else’s pic of Disneyland. Isn’t technology fabulous?)

For me, theme is trickiest of the core competencies. I have a hard time defining it in my own words. I have a hard time figuring it out when someone else uses their own words to define it. Mr. Brooks says theme is “what the story means. How it relates to reality and life in general. What it says about life and the infinite roster of issues, facets, challenges, and experiences it presents… theme is the relevance of your story to life…Theme is what makes you think,” he continues, “what makes you feel… what will make [readers] remember it and treasure it.” 

Theme is what the reader takes from the story.

I’ve heard many writers say that they don’t worry about incorporating theme into their stories. They write what they write, and at the end, theme emerges. I’ll admit I’ve done that very thing, mainly because I had no clue HOW to create a theme on purpose. My beta readers said they loved the theme of my book… and I have no clue it got in there, because I didn’t consciously put it there. It just appeared, as if by magic.

It’s not magic. I think, at some subconscious level, I must understand theme enough to make it emerge from my stories. The hard part is figuring out how that happened so I can do it again, and even more importantly, teach other writers how to do it. That’s the topic of my next post, because that’s what the next chapter is about. So stay tuned for “implementing theme.”

Questions? Comments?


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