Feb 22

Theme and Your Story

Jigsaw PuzzleYour story is like a puzzle. It takes a number of elements working together to make a memorable story. One of those elements is the ‘theme.’

Theme can be a frightening topic. Do you have a theme in mind before striking the first key? Or, do you write your first draft and then decide what the theme is? Do you have a problem deciding what the theme is, even after you’re in revisions?

In an article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Theme,” in the Writer’s Chronicle, May 2010, Eileen Pollack discusses theme:

The concrete elements of any story constitute its plot—Character A, in Village B, is torn by a specific conflict that gives rise to a series of concrete actions through which she relieves that stress. The more general question raised in the reader’s mind by this specific character acting out this specific plot constitutes the story’s aboutness—or, dare I say, it’s theme.

This description of the elements of a story holds true for any fiction work, including children’s stories. The elements, woven together with theme as the foundation, is what makes the reader continue on, turning the pages . . . it’s what makes the reader care. According to Pollack, “Theme is the writer’s answer to the reader’s rude, So what?” And, if the theme is poignant, and captures what some or many people actually do, allowing the reader to recognize the situation and actions, the reader will be engaged. Hopefully, the reader will be able to take the theme, however subtle it is, away with them.

For those worried about the theme affecting the story’s natural flow, Pollack advises deciding on your theme after your first draft. Once you have your theme in hand, go over your story again and again. You can now let the theme subtly permeate your story. Pollack goes on to say, “The most powerful use of theme is the way it allows you to fill in your character’s inner lives.”

Literary agent Mary Kole, in her blog at Kidlit.com, also sheds light on the worrisome theme:

When you revise, think about what your work is saying. You’ve got to have a reason for writing it. There should be distinct themes and ideas that you could point to as the center of your book. [. . .] Once you know what these are — and you usually won’t until you’ve started revising — you can use them as a lens. [. . .] A theme for your work should color everything in it, subtly, especially the descriptions.

So, there you have, after you’ve written your story and are working on revisions, if you haven’t gotten it yet, your theme should become evident. Using it as a “lens” and filtering each paragraph through it, you should be able to convey the theme to the reader.

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Karen Cioffi