Exploring Theme - A Key Component to Successful Writing

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Discover one of the key components to successful writing -- theme. In the following excerpt from Story Engineering, author Larry Brooks explains the difference between theme and concept. Plus, learn why theme is crucial to developing and writing a successful story.

Defining Theme

Have you ever put down a novel or walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, what the hell was that about?”

Probably not. Agents and editors and script readers experience that moment all the time, but the reading and moviegoing public is shielded from that response by virtue of the work these folks put into the finished product. A well-told story, the kind that gets published or made into a film, usually doesn’t elicit such a response. As an intelligent reader or viewer you intuitively know what it was about, and usually on two levels: it was about the plot…and, in a different experiential context, it was about what the story means.

The latter is called theme. It is one of the Six Core Competencies of successful writing in general, and storytelling in particular. Because great stories, the kind that turn their authors into A-list brand names, have both realms in play.

For example, you probably read The Da Vinci Code.Based on the number of copies sold, pretty much everybody did. It was about a crime, a heinous murder of a museum curator who left a clue about his killer written in his own blood. It was a mystery that became a thriller when the hero found himself in the crosshairs of unseen bad guys.

In terms of what The Da Vinci Code was about, that was the plot.

But The Da Vinci Code was about so much more than its plot. It was about the veracity of the dominant religion of Western culture. It was about a speculated truth that had been, according to the story, swept under the rug of time. It was about the lengths people will go to in the name of what they believe.

On a thematic level, this was what the story was all about.

What is Theme?

In my workshops people always ask about the difference between theme and concept. Which, once you understand it, is like asking about the difference between chopped spinach and filet mignon. They’re two items on the menu of our stories, completely separate and quite necessary to a balanced diet. Either one, served alone, is merely a snack. Tasty, but not completely filling or nourishing.

To put it in its most simple terms, theme is what our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general. What is says about life and the infinite roster of issues, facets, challenges and experiences it presents. Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on anything human beings experience in life.

It can be a principle or an inevitable stage of growing up. It can be subtle or it can be on the nose. It can be contextual, or it can be the centerpiece of the story. And because it can be all of these things, or seemingly none of them yet strangely moving, it is often confusing to writers who can’t quite grasp what it means to the craft of storytelling.

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.

Theme is life itself, as manifested in our stories, as seen through our characters, and as experienced through our plots.

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