This post, by Chuck Wendig, originally appeared on his terribleminds site on 9/26/11.
1. Every Story Is An Argument
Every story’s trying to say something. It’s trying to beam an idea, a message, into the minds of the readers. In this way, every story is an argument. It’s the writer making a case. It’s the writer saying, “All of life is suffering.” Or, “Man will be undone by his prideful reach.” Or “Love blows.” Or, “If you dance with the Devil Wombat, you get cornholed by the Devil Wombat.” This argument is the story’s theme.
[Publetariat Editor’s Note: strong language after the jump]
2. The Elements Of Story Support That Argument
If the theme, then, is the writer’s thesis statement, then all elements of the story — character, plot, word choice, scene development, inclusion of the Devil Wombat — go toward proving that thesis.
3. Unearthed Or Engineered
The theme needn’t be something the writer is explicitly aware of — it may be an unconscious argument, a message that has crept into the work like a virus capable of overwriting narrative DNA, like a freaky dwarven stalker hiding in your panty drawers and getting his greasy Norseman stink all over your undergarments. A writer can engineer the theme — building it into the work. Or a writer can unearth it — discovering its tendrils after the work is written.
4. Theme: A Lens That Levels The Laser
Knowing your theme can give your story focus. If you know the theme before you write, it helps you make your argument. If you discover the theme before a rewrite, it helps you go back through and filter the story, discovering which elements speak to your argument and which elements are either vestigial (your story’s stubby, grubby tail) or which elements go against your core argument (“so far, nobody is getting cornholed by the Devil Wombat”).
5. Do I Really Need This Happy Horseshit?
Yes and no. Yes, your story needs a theme. It’s what elevates that motherfucker to something beyond forgettable entertainment. You can be assured, for instance, that 90% of movies starring Dolph Lundgren have no theme present. A story with a theme is a story with a point. No, you don’t always need to identify the theme. Sometimes a story will leap out of your head with a theme cradled to its bosom (along with the shattered pottery remains of your skull) regardless of whether or not you intended it. Of course, identifying the theme at some point in your storytelling will ensure that it exists and that your story isn’t just a hollow scarecrow bereft of his stuffing. Awww. Sad scarecrow. Crying corn syrup tears.
6. Slippery Business
I make it sound easy. Like you can just state a theme or find it tucked away in your story like a mint on a pillow. It isn’t. Theme is slippery, uncertain. It’s like a lubed-up sex gimp: every time you think you get your hands around him the greasy latex-enveloped sonofabitch is out of the cage and free from your grip and running into traffic where he’s trying desperately to unzipper his mouth and scream for help. Be advised: theme is tricky. Chameleonic. Which isn’t a word. But it should be. It jolly well fucking should be.
7. For Instance: You Can Get It Wrong
You might think going in, “What I’m trying to say with this story is that man’s inhumanity to man is what keeps civilization going.” But then you get done the story and you’re like, “Oh, shit. I wasn’t saying that at all, was I? I was saying that man’s inhumanity to cake is what keeps civilization going.” And then you’re like, “Fuck yeah, cake.” And you eat some cake.
8. Mmm, Speaking Of Cake
In cake, every piece is a microcosm of the whole. A slice contains frosting, cake, filling. Okay, that’s not entirely true — sometimes you get a piece of cake where you get something other pieces don’t get, like a fondant rose, but really, let’s be honest, fondant tastes like sugary butthole. Nasty stuff. So, let’s disregard that and go back to the original notion: all pieces of cake contain the essence of that cake. So it is with your story: all pieces of the story contain the essence of that story, and the essence of that story is the theme. The theme is cake, frosting, filling. In every slice you cut. Man, now I really want a piece of cake.
9. Grand Unification Theory
Another way to look at theme: it unifies story and bridges disparate elements. In this way theme is like The Force. Or like fiber. Or like bondage at an orgy. It ties the whole thing together. Different characters, tangled plotlines, curious notions: all of them come together with the magic motherfucking superglue of theme.
10. Put Down That Baseball Bat, Pick Up That Phial Of Poison
Theme can do a story harm. It isn’t a bludgeoning device. A story is more than just a conveyance for your message: the message is just one component of your story. Overwrought themes become belligerent within the text, like a guy yelling in your ear, smacking you between the shoulder blades with his Bible. Theme is a drop of poison: subtle, unseen, but carried in the bloodstream to the heart and brain just the same. Repeat after me, penmonkeys: Your story is not a sermon.