Finding Themo

I’ve recently become a little anxious about theme.

First there was this thread on a writer’s forum I belong to in which people were discussing where in a novel you’re supposed to introduce the theme. I sort of skimmed through the posts and then slunk away without participating, because, to be honest, it wasn’t something I had really thought about before.

In fact, I wasn’t even completely sure I understood what a theme was. Luckily, there’s a Mary Kole post for that! Simply defined, a theme is a Big Idea or Big Question that your book strives to explore…and according to Mary, every book should have one.

So all of that was kind of gnawing at my brain already…and then this week my friend Lisa wrote a terrific post on her blog called “Personal Mission Statements in Life and Writing,” which got me thinking about the whole issue even more. And, frankly, feeling a little concerned. I certainly hadn’t tried to insert a theme into Gladys Gatsby; did that mean that the book didn’t have one? And could my struggles with certain elements of my new WIP have to do with the fact that I didn’t have a theme for it, either?

Catch this theme if you can.

Thankfully, my writers’ group had a meeting scheduled this week, so I asked my two critique partners for their wisdom on theme. Did they have a Big Idea to explore in mind from page 1 of the first draft, or was it something that emerged on its own later, as the story got underway? Perhaps not surprisingly, I got two totally different answers: one of my CPs feels that she needs to know her theme to get her excited about writing a book in the first place, while for the other, the theme just emerges naturally as she drafts her stories.

But then, that CP told us about an exercise she had heard about once at a conference: If you’re not sure what the theme is in your own writing, take a look at your favorite movies. What do they have in common? What kinds of stories do they tell? Chances are, they share a theme that’s important to you, and that’s probably showing up in your own work.

Almost got a theme!

So that night, I examined my DVD shelf…and what do you know, I started to see a pattern!  School of Rock. Catch Me if You Can. Almost Famous. All stories of characters who take on a huge, seemingly unachievable goal—one that the powers-that-be in their worlds would surely put the kibosh on if only they knew about the protagonist’s secret plans—and, against all odds, manage to achieve it. (With plenty of funny hijinks ensuing along the way, of course.)

Shabam. That’s pretty much EXACTLY how things go down for Gladys. Standing up against the naysaying powers that be to take a shot at greatness…turns out my book does have a theme after all!

Jack Black will school you…IN THEME.

That’s definitely NOT the theme of my current project, though. But I have a whole other set of favorite movies—that tend to have international settings and usually some sort of forbidden love element, like The English Patient and The Sound of Music—that may shed some light on what theme I’m exploring in my WIP. I’m not quite sure what that is yet, but I think that it has something to do with loyalty, national identity, and self-sacrifice? Maybe by the time I finish a first draft, it’ll be clearer to me. 😀

So my question to you, fellow writers: Do you think consciously about theme from the first moments of brainstorming a new story, or is it something that reveals itself to you much later on in the process? Also, if you decide to try the “Favorite Film Analysis for Theme Identification” (um, FFATI?) method, feel free to share what you discover in the comments section!

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19 thoughts on “Finding Themo

  1. Great post, Tara! I love how you uncovered your theme. I’ve outlined themes in advance a couple of times, but each time I’ve done so, the story comes across as preachy and boring. I like the idea of themes emerging naturally.

    • Thanks, Priscilla! I feel like I learned in a class or from a book early on in my writing days that I should just to focus on storytelling and not think about theme as I wrote, but a lot of advice I’ve read recently (from very knowledgeable corners) seemed to say otherwise…hence my anxiety. 🙂 But I think I still fall into your camp in the end!

  2. Yes, yes, yes! Too much work/thought on the themo can be a bad thing, but I think it sort of has to be there at least subliminally when the idea is taking shape. An agent recently critiqued my ms and she totally summed up the theme way better than I ever had! So apparently I’d put it there clearly enough that someone could find it and articulate it for me (whew), so that seemed like a good test to add to the writerly bag of tricks for future mss.

    Love the idea to think of similar movies. Must ponder that one …

    • Ooh, Kip, that’s another really good idea–make another reader find your theme for you! I’m all about sharing the burden like that. 🙂

      If you figure out anything enlightening from examining your movies, let us know!

  3. I think that starting with “theme” from the get-go sorta makes me revert to English Lit major mode and thinking what can I do to please Professor Wood. I much prefer to let it grow organically, and then get someone like kiperoo to reveal the theme for me. (I love it when my CPs compliment me on some unconscious effect, nuance, or theme they’ve found in my writing. I always reply “How perceptive of you!”)

    Nice post, Tara.

    • Sarah, this is my plan for my current WIP–use the first draft to explore the story and hopefully discover the theme, and possibly work it in some more in the second draft. Wise words!

  4. Great post, Tara. I’ll be exploring my favorite DVDs the next time I sit down with my WIP.

    I agree with those who say that theme reveals itself as we write – at least that’s what has happened to me. But the confusion came from SAVE the CAT, which says that the theme should be stated early on. I’m guessing that screenplays are a bit different in that way. Perhaps in movies an audience needs that to set the story in motion. In novels, I think that theme is woven in and discovered throughout. After all, many novels begin with our MC having a false or superficial problem or motivation. I’m not sure any “theme” stated early would represent the true theme – unless it was something abstractly stated by a mentor character.

  5. Ooo, the film analysis will take me awhile to think about, but for my last couple of WIPs, I think of movies like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society–films where people are struggling with growing up and how to stay true to themselves, but are still connecting to that playful side of themselves. Using the painful stuff to be a stronger person in the future~ that type of thing. I don’t think I ever write with a theme in mind. I try to get to know the characters, then execute their story. I usually discover a theme in my first full read-through, and try to strengthen that theme in revision.

  6. This is such a great post. And these are such great comments!

    So, I’ve been thinking about my favorite movies…my top three are Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain…so, I do believe my theme is Ang Lee is a genius. 🙂 Also, love that faces enormous obstacles really wrenches at my heart. And, I was about to say that that doesn’t really apply to my manuscripts since I basically don’t do romance in my little MG corner, but it just occurred to me that a MG version of that theme does seem to wind its way around my stories.

    On a side note, I really want to read Save the Cat, too!

    • Ang Lee IS a genius–S&S and CTHD are two of my very favorites, too! Man, all three of those movies have so much LONGING in them. Suddenly I find myself longing to watch all three of them, this minute!

      Right, anyway. I’d say that all of those movies have a strong element of finding the strength to break social taboos to achieve your heart’s desire. An excellent theme, and definitely translatable to non-love stories, I think!

  7. Love this post and all the comments!

    Writing YA, my over-arching theme tends to be self-discovery but how it comes about varies: my first YA was about a girl coping with how to become herself within her family, my second about a girl who needed to see herself through someone else’s eyes to see her own truth… so yes, I do think about thematic issues a lot as I begin. I think I can articulate the theme before I can give you the elevator pitch.

    My favorite movies are great romances or epic adventures, sometimes both (like LOTR). I don’t really do epic, but falling in love? Absolutely! 🙂

  8. Sometimes I avoid thinking about theme because I worry, Ugh, I’m boiling this down into a one-sentence slab of trite. But I’ve learned the hard way that if you CAN’T do that, you’re sunk. Because it means you might not know what you’re even writing about, and it certainly means you can’t sell it/pitch it/talk about it coherently. Usually you find this out when you try to write your query. Queries really expose the cracks in your ms like nothing else because if you can be succinct, you probably missed the mark.

    Finding Themo. Heh. That’s cute.

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