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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  1. The most profound themes in fiction are the ones the writer wasn’t aware of until some observant reader points it out.

    A lot of the writers I read intentionally work in a message— a Christian message, a secularist message, an atheist message, a Wiccan message, I read all kinds. And mostly if I didn’t agree with the author at the time I found the message very intrusive, while if I agreed, I found it less so. (I have been both a Christian and a Wiccan/Neopagan during the course of my reading life.)

    To the Christian writer I would advise following these three priorities:
    1) Tell a great story
    2) Tell a great story
    3) Tell a great story

    And trust in the Lord that He will make you into the kind of writer who can let the Christian faith shine forth in your fiction without consciously planning a heavy Christian theme (which all too easily is seen as preachy and as a distraction from the story.)

    Some writers can pull off putting in lots of overt Christian content as in C. S. Lewis or Jerry B. Jenkins, but that takes a lot of skill which the less experienced writer does not have. Some writers never master the art of being subtle— one secular author cannot let a book go by without some character commenting how impossible it is to believe in God after all the horrible things of the story (usually involving Nazis) have happened.


  2. I agree with you and Truby. There’s nothing wrong with starting with a theme, but it had better be a good story. Thanks for this post. If I’d read it before I’d posted, I’d have linked to it. Of course.


  3. Great post, Becky! I love the quotes from Truby. I think I might I need to read The Anatomy of Story. 🙂

    And I agree with you–neither beginning with a theme nor presenting an overt theme is an issue. It’s a matter of how well the themes are handled. Which is one reason I’d like to see less debate about the value of theme–innate in any story–and more discussion of how we can grow in this area of craft so we are approaching it with excellence.


  4. Hi, Nissa, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    The most profound themes in fiction are the ones the writer wasn’t aware of until some observant reader points it out.

    The thing is, Nissa, this idea contradicts what these (secular) writing professionals are saying. They are giving instruction how to intentionally incorporate themes — and I’m sure they’d say they’re looking for profound themes, at that — into fiction.

    You say we are to write a great story, and I certainly agree. But here’s what I believe, in conjunction with these men I quoted and the writer of the article: no story is great without attention to theme.

    I think we are kidding ourselves to believe that we have to work to craft believable characters, we have to work to build a story world, we have to work to create a dynamic plot, but a profound theme just happens.

    I’ll also reiterate, having a theme does not mean it has to be overt. It can be subtle if the author chooses. It may take a bit more careful crafting, but that’s a good thing.

    At the same time, an overt theme is not somehow inferior. If it is right there in plain view, it too needs careful crafting so that the reader doesn’t feel he’s the brunt of a lecture.

    The key is in the execution, and the sooner Christian writers stop debating whether or not we should have themes and whether or not they should be subtle or overt, and move on to discussing how we can do theme well, the sooner our fiction will improve.



  5. Sally and Sarah, thanks for your feedback, too.

    Sally, I’m the same — wish I’d read your post before I published this so I could have linked to it.

    Sarah, just so you know, not everyone (*cough* Sally) 😉 is a fan of Truby’s approach. It’s different. No 3-act plot. He’s quite critical of that actually.

    He has a list of steps or questions that he says will allow a writer to grow a story organically rather than in a formulaic manner. We’ll see. I need to finish the last of my current project, then I want to start the next one using his approach.

    I did a short story using the scaled down version and found it to be really easy. Whether anyone likes the story or not is another question. 😆



  6. Becky,

    This was an excellent post. The theme should be woven into the story and not become the story. Those are two different things.

    I recently read Athol Dickson’s Lost Mission. I really enjoyed reading it and the Christianity was upfront…but I felt didn’t overwhelm the story.

    It can be done in Christian Fiction and readers (and writers) should keep asking and buying books that have it.



  7. On Theme and Meaning…

    On the topic of theme and meaning in stories, Flannery O’Conner said: “When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embo…


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