Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Long Form: Theme

Writing Wednesday

"Wait," you say. "Theme? What gives? We've talked about motif, emphasis, rhythm, variation, tension and release, and trajectory. Isn't it all basically the same thing?"

Perhaps--if you step back far enough and squint.

Part of the power of the long form is that with it you can examine subtle differences whose real significance only becomes apparent over time.

But at a deeper level, the topical similarity of the posts to date in this series on the long form illustrates today's topic: theme. That is, all of these posts explore the theme of the long form.

Some writers stumble when asked the theme of their novel. They say it's simply a story--nothing hidden below the surface. Others take the question of theme as open season, with no boredom restrictions. The truth, as always, lies between these extremes.

Every piece has a theme because story is a model and the author has chosen what to include. But no piece's theme is the definitive statement on the topic because story is a model and the author has chosen what to exclude.

Theme is simply an idea you examine from various angles in the course of your piece.

The various angles are the key difference between theme and other dimensions, like emphasis. If, for example, you have a character who loves his wife, his dog, his work, and orange soda, you have four angles from which to explore the theme of love (particularly if some of those angles are in conflict). On the other hand, a book about why-my-political-philosophy-is-right-and-yours-is-wrong may have a theme in the abstract sense of repetition with variation, but fails the various angles test.

Another way to think of it is that theme is the heart of the meta-conversation you want to have with your readers: the ground that you'd like to explore together.

Image: Simon Howden /


  1. I have a B.A. in English lit. & am writing two books (one of essays, and one a comedy - mystery novel) and feel inadequate for not being good at summarizing and stating a Theme.
    Thanks for the thoughts.
    The last part you wrote: "theme is the heart of the meta-conversation you want to have with your readers..."
    THAT I can "get."
    Always think of my blog as a Conversation.

  2. As an inveterate polymath and transgressor of disciplinary boundaries, I've observed that those boundaries are largely a linguistic construct. That is, disciplines breed jargon so that they can know who's in and who's out.

    And why do disciplines need boundaries in the first place? To justify their existence. A doctor talking about ventral-this and dorsal-that sounds more rarefied than some one talking about your front side and your back side.

    I think one of the reasons terms like, theme, become difficult to understand is that the guardians of the discipline--even the well meaning ones--can't resist slathering nuance all over the term.


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