Theme—Day 34; with a little critical thinking thrown in for free

In one section in the “Theme” chapter of Donald Maass’s book, Writing the Breakout Novel, he mentions that even TV sitcoms have themes:

Half-hour family sitcoms on TV often have a familiar moral, but usually it is forgotten by the time the final credits roll. Why? The sitcom message is often simplistic and weakly dramatized.

This may be true, but I contend that this does not make the them ineffective.

Over at the Faith in Fiction Discussion Board several of us have been discussing an article about critical thinking posted at Agape Press. As I wrote comments about propaganda, I couldn’t help thinking about theme as well.

So now I am wondering, perhaps theme is most effective when it isn’t taken aside and analyzed. (Dare I cite examples of sitcoms that pushed an agenda we can now look back upon and see accepted in our culture?)

This lack of critical reflection comes about when theme is tied with an interesting story or characters that are so endearing or engaging that readers (or viewers) care deeply.

Then even when the theme is simplistic and weakly dramatized, it still retains its influence.

Best of all, it seems to me, is the theme that is so well-crafted, with such a light touch that the characters, story, and the ideas they represent are memorable, and therefore the theme continues influencing even after the next read and the next. To the point that contradictory themes might be called into question.

Is that too much to hope for? Too much to aim at?

Published in: on May 10, 2006 at 1:34 pm  Comments (8)  


  1. the deal with the sitcoms, I think, is that we got the same undercurrent theme week after week even as the weekly theme changed. So we might deal with lying or porn or self esteem in individual episodes but week after week after week we were getting a, “gay lifestyle is fine” or “dads are stupid” message.


  2. As Christians living in this world, we are continually challenged by the visual medium of television and film to accept the themes (easily agendas) of promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality, abortion, and you-name-it told in sometimes amazing stories that appeal to us emotionally.
    What comes to mind is the movie “The Notebook” (based on the book of the same name). That movie was gloriously photographed, the actors were wonderfully attractive, the love story was touching and compelling told over time. However, as a Christian, we get sucked into the beauty without reconciling the reality of a godless relationship in all its “glory”.
    I spent a considerable time in the world before knowing Jesus Christ. The portrayal of the world and what it has to offer is beguiling and deceptive in its “beauty”. As writers we have to capture it accurately and expose it with compassion, understanding, but ultimately with the truth.
    I think our underlying theme as Christian writers will vary only slightly from story to story showing different aspects of the singular theme. It will inevitably be shown or produced in new and exhilarating plots, characters, settings, etc.
    Does that make any sense?


  3. Sally, I agree that repetition is the key factor to the effectiveness of sitcom themes. A teacher friend of mine states this as a principle: “Repetition is the key to learning.” So no matter how simplistic or weakly dramatized a theme may be, if a viewer sees it 25 times, without challenging its veracity, the chances are they have begun to accept it, if not to believe it to be true.

    Unfortunately, the secondary themes—the porn-is-OK, mankind-is-good messages—might still appear repeatedly over the span of a season. Put those seasons together into the 5 or so years a show runs, and those messages have been hammered into the heart and mind of viewers as well.



  4. Nicole, you have pretty much explained why I’ve become a writer.

    Story IS powerful, and the more beautiful the setting, the more compelling the characters, the more exciting the action, the easier it is for a viewer or reader to justify the wrong message woven in subtle tones throughout.

    If Christians don’t take an active role in what amounts to culture building, then we are letting non-Christians pass on values to all of us.

    I don’t know as I agree, however, that our theme will vary only slightly from story to story. I think that has actually become a drawback to Christian fiction. Many people shy away from novels written by Christians because the payload is a known quantity going in.

    It’s like having a conversation with someone who tells the same stories over and over. You know what’s coming and some times you’d just as soon not hear it again.

    As I’ve said elsewhere in this discussion on theme, I think if we Christian writers began to explore more about our infinite God, we would not lack for fresh themes.



  5. Becky,
    I just reread the chapter on theme in Donald Maass’s book. I guess what I’m saying is that as a writer of Christian fiction, the underlying or prevalent “theme” is always going to be about the reality of Jesus Christ. However, if I’m a Christian writer attempting to draw the secular reader into my fiction, then I might have any number of themes that only peripherally deal with the reality of Jesus Christ or God in general. Two examples of that are Tim Downs’ very entertaining, although without any noticeable “evangelical” message, Shoo Fly Pie and Chop Shop.
    The best quote in the theme chapter I could find to illustrate my point (such as it is) is this one: “One solution to building powerful themes, then, is to apply the principle of originality discussed in chapter two. In other words, travel to a familiar moral destination but by an unfamiliar route.”


  6. Point well taken, Nicole. I love that Maass quote. Finding that unfamiliar route takes some hard work, I think. But absolutely that will enrich the theme that is familiar.

    I guess I am advocating the expansion of theme, but I should not neglect this concept.

    By expansion of theme I mean exploring aspects of God’s character that are sometimes overlooked or brushed aside even by believers. Chances are, if we talk about redemption, the aspect of God’s character that leaps to mind is His love. Absolutely true, but also something dealt with in many previous novels.

    So how about coming at redemption from the point of view of God’s justice. What would a story look like that wanted to portray God as a God of justice? Would it be too harsh for us to handle?

    I think you can see what I’m suggesting. There are lots of things we could be writing about that would be true to God’s revealed nature, that would make for interesting—and different—stories.



  7. Excellent conclusion. I have no doubt you’ll achieve your purpose.


  8. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Nicole.

    I sure appreciate your participation!



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