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!