Thinking About “Theme”



“The art of [including themes] is to infuse them into a dramatic story that compels on both levels: the dramatic and the thematic.”

So says a commenter to the StoryFix article, “The Thing About Theme – What Are You Trying to Say?” by guest blogger Jessica Flory. Interestingly there was no discussion about the problems of writing stories with a message.

How different the Christian writing community is. The discussion over the last few years has run the gamut — from those eschewing any message, claiming that saying something in fiction is propaganda, to those on the other end who think a long speech setting forth the plan of salvation should be in every novel called Christian.

I’ve written extensively on the subject of theme and have been gratified to see others address the topic too. But there still seems to be some misunderstanding. Some people believe that an overt message is automatically preachy. That’s not close to the dictionary definition:

having or revealing a tendency to give moral advice in a tedious or self-righteous way (Oxford English Dictionary).

What makes the theme of a novel seem tedious or self-righteous?

Tedious would be “same ol’, same ol’.” Self-righteous, I believe, would be the author spelling out the message to make sure the reader gets it. It’s an insult to the reader, and it violates the story.

Unfortunately, Christian fiction has become known for both those problems. Just last week I was bemoaning with a friend the tendency for Christian romance to tell the story, and retell the story, of a Christian girl falling in love with the Bad Boy, only to convert him in the end as they fall in love and begin their happy lives together.

That scenario suffers on two fronts. First, it has been done before … with some frequency. Nothing other than the salvation message comes through the story — nothing new for the reader familiar with salvation to think about. Secondly, stories with that basic premise may focus on spelling out how conversion “works” so that the reader gets it.

I’m not opposed to romance in fiction, and I’m not opposed to conversions. Both can work and they can work in the same story. However, to avoid being tedious, something different, interesting, unusual should be added. Or the expected should be turned on it’s keester. 😉

To avoid being self-righteous, the author must muzzle himself. He must also resist turning a character into his mouthpiece.

Here’s what writing instructor John Truby has to say about theme:

The theme is your moral vision, your view of how people should act in the world. But instead of making the characters a mouthpiece for a message, we will express the theme that is inherent in the story idea. And we’ll express the theme through the story structure so that it both surprises and moves the audience (from The Anatomy of Story).

On his web site, Mr. Truby addresses the approach one movie takes to theme:

The Constant Gardener shows us what happens when a film’s moral argument outweighs its story. The film has a serious thesis it wants to express concerning the plight of Africans and the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies that supply them with drugs. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a theme and creating a story from that. But it had better be a good story. [emphasis added]

Some people argue that many who read Christian fiction like overt Christian themes. That’s why they choose to read those novels. Overt is not at issue. Overt themes are not by definition tedious or self-righteous. Overt themes do not, by nature, cause readers to feel as if the author is talking to them about Christianity rather than telling them a story.

The classic example of stories with overt themes is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. No one can miss the good triumphing over evil with the king comes into Narnia, or forgiveness purchased with sacrifice, both of which are at the heart of The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. Though the themes are clear, I have never heard Lewis accused of being preachy.

In short, we Christians would do well to stop quibbling about whether or not stories should have themes. Yes, they should! But whether they are overt or subtle, they must be crafted well so that they don’t “overwhelm the story.”

Published in: on August 17, 2011 at 7:05 pm  Comments (7)  
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