Better, as a writer, what do you want readers to care about in your own writing?
Better still, when our readers set down our writing, what lasting values and emotions – what enduring feelings – do we hope to inspire in them?
Answer these questions – no easy task – and we just might find some understanding of theme in our writing. That notoriously obscure but most vital of story ingredients – theme. It is the organizing principle, the emotional core, the value-laden heart of our writing and reading.
This is equally true of persuasive writing in legal advocacy: theme both drives and organizes our reader’s emotional engagement. If well crafted, our theme works beneath the surface, unspoken and implicit, where its persuasive appeal nudges or taps our unconscious, the place from which we decide most matters in our lives.
But theme doesn’t tell us how to live well or relate to others or make the right decisions. It shows us the way. It shows us what’s relevant to our lives. It shows us what the story means. It is inherent, generative, and implicit.
So, the first rule of theme is not to talk about theme in your writing – at least not explicitly in your writing. A surefire way to kill a theme is to call it out directly in your writing.
The second rule of theme is let theme emerge, at least in part, organically from your writing. In other words, extract theme as you write. Don’t bring theme to your writing. No agendas, please.
Still, you may want a few techniques if you’re not so comfortable with the organic emergence of theme, or if want to start with theme in mind to usher your writing. If so, then writing coach Jack Hart offers the following advice in Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction:
- Give your writing a title at the very start to orient you to its essence, to drive your narrative or argument. The title should aim for the emotional center and value conflict inherent in your vision of the piece. This may seem tepid advice, or even ill-suited at the outset of any project, but effective theme-driven titles can serve as the most useful early organizing principle for your writing. They demand an overarching sense of your intentions as a writer, along with your best wishes for your reader’s interpretation. Keep in mind that your title/theme may change as your writing ensues. Be willing to change, again keeping in mind that your creativity and thinking will surely evolve through the act of writing.
- Come up with a theme statement, 1-2 sentences that capture the core emotional meaning and value at stake in your writing. One thought experiment that might help you with this: imagine sitting around the kitchen table with close family or friends enjoying coffee during an honest, open talk. They ask you what you’re writing is really about, what matters most in what you’re working on. Now give your answer in less than 10 seconds. Work to crystallize this answer into a universal value statement true to both the particulars of your writing and the nature of the world in which we live. A tall order, I know. But this is what makes themes so compelling – their jointly universal and personal appeal.
- Similar to this last technique, but more focused still, find the one sentence that expresses your writing’s “irreducible meaning,” in a phrase made popular by screen writing coach Robert McKee. In searching for this irreducible meaning, you should concentrate on finding the right verb, preferably a transitive one, that takes a direct object. This shows causality. And causality is crucial to theme because it shows your reader how the world works and what they can do to influence it. For instance, “Actions speak louder than words” shows the potency of the one-sentence theme reduction with a crisp, simple verb.
- Lajos Egri promotes a structural approach to theme, advising us to devise a theme with 3 story ingredients in mind – (1) character, (2) conflict, and (3) narrative arch. Thus, the theme “frugality leads to waste” (1) implies a frugal character, (2) suggests conflict through the verb phrase “leads to”, and (3) reveals a likely ending with “waste”.
- Collaborate with someone on theme by asking another what you’re writing is all about, whether it’s your editor or your friend or your imaginary ideal reader.
Whether we write with theme in mind at the outset, or allow theme to grow more organically out of our writing, or a little of both, these 5 techniques offer us choices as writers who care about our readers, who care about the quality of our own prose, and who seek to move others through the written word.