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A Tiny Taste of Theme

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By Johnny Worthen

My academic career was not in writing but in criticism. When I turned my powers to evil and became a writer, I used my knowledge of the inner layers of literature to create more. Thus I’ve written in more genres than any modern author should be allowed, and I teach the Path of Theme.

Welcome to a tiny taste of theme. A short paper based on a short presentation about a huge subject.

The human mind is a meaning-making machine. Pattern recognition and prediction are the hallmarks of our species while symbolic interaction is the cornerstone of our civilization. With such SEO keywords out of the way, let’s talk about writing.

Human readers, not AI (yet), gleam meaning from narratives. Instinctively we put the myriad of pieces together into a coherent idea. Call it a moral, call it a theme, it’s the overall subtext, the unseen but sensed connective tissue that unites the whole experience. This tissue can be for subplots or the piece entirely, or ancillary moments that resonate.

Obsession (Moby Dick)

The forms of freedom (Huck Finn, main)

Lying has its place (Huck Finn, portions)

Usually this cohesion of idea is sensed subconsciously. The reader feels an empathy to the bigger ideas being explored. Sometimes, with academic training that borders of political brainwashing, one learns to peel the layers back and consciously name the ideas, point the pieces that support those ideas, and write a five page paper for a midterm.

All writing will possess a theme. A writer couldn’t remove it if they tried because reading is participatory. The reader’s mind will connect pieces whether the writer wanted them to or not. That’s why writers are often bad critics of their work. They might say things they mean one way, but that the reader may take another. It’s a big argument. Nevertheless, themes exist organically by virtue of the minds involved. Therefore, consciously writing to theme is a luxury. That’s right. You don’t have to do this. You don’t need to do any of this, or be aware of it, or even finish reading this blog post. Go eat some corn chips, watch an overpriced dreck streaming service ruin your favorite science fiction series by brutally re-reimagining it into some unrecognizable hellish simulacrum of your childhood treasures.

Many stories have built in themes, “good versus evil (good is better)” “should I be true to myself? (yes)” “Will I ever find love (you will).” These themes are fine, recognizable and easily digestible, but weak. You’re safe here. This is all you need for a full career, but if you want more, read on.

Being aware of the existence of theme, you can use this knowledge to improve your life, or better yet, your writing.

If you’ve already written a story, I suggest you re-read it as a critic, and try to figure out what your subconscious was trying to say. You might be surprised. Once themes (note plural) are identified, you might do some re-writing to enhance certain elements to strengthen the themes in your work.

If you’re mid-way through your writing and you want to consider theme, it’s not too late. Re-read what you’ve done so far, like I detailed in the previous paragraph, tweak what you can and then plan your story from there as I detail below.

If you’re planning a story, might I suggest that you place theme forefront in your design? Many people begin with characters and plot. Some setting, but theme is really what people are reading for. Theme is the steak; characters, plot, and setting are the sizzle. Forests and trees stuff.

So, how does one write to theme?

All writing is autobiographical. Whatever is on your mind will show up in your writing, in tone, detail, tears—however. Some hide it better than others, but we write what we know. Maybe you’re mad about Apple’s take on Asimov’s Foundation, maybe you’re concerned with the climate, the rise of hate groups (pick a side), the easy way a lover could abandon you. These are prime starting places. Suffering is the heart of art, some say.

Frame your concern into a question. Do I own things or do they own me? This is a great thematic question in our society and one I personally have wrestled with, though I didn’t get a book out of it. Yet.

Think of things that go with this question. Maybe you already have some. Maybe you need to brainstorm. Brainstorming for me with theme is listing free associations. Yes, a physical list of ideas in a document, maybe a notepad, or perhaps on your padded walls written with a stolen Sharpie clutched in between your chattering teeth. Make long lists of anything you associate with the idea or question in question. Character will come from this, plots, settings, details—all flow out using what Buddhists call “Concentration.” Focus on the idea and the Muse will supply material.

You can’t use them all. Don’t even try. But you will find a couple of gems. Circle those.

Characters, for my question, might be: A workaholic who must put in eighty hours a week to keep their house with the pool in Aspen. A homeless person. A hippie living on a commune. Anyone trying to keep up with the Joneses. A frustrated housewife over-shopping on Amazon, using consumer therapy to dull the pain of career compromise. Any boat owner would be a good candidate for the question of “do I own something or does it own me.” All these characters will bring a specific angled lens to the question of money and happiness, the better to shine light on it from multiple directions.

Settings now. Some are suggestive by the characters. A hippie commune, a homeless shelter, a suburban home, a mansion. Also there could be auction houses where things are bought and sold. A museum collection or a hoarders house. A graveyard might play here too, representing the great equalizing event of “you can’t take it with you” echoing off cold marble stone.

Plots. Notice the plural. Each character in each setting will have a different take on the question. This is a good thing. You’re not preaching, you’re exploring. For our example today, some possible plots might be, selling a family heirloom out of necessity or greed, the overworked person recognizing they’re missing out on more important things—family, fun, Resident Alien. Someone obsessively chasing a valuable piece of kitsch, maybe an original Kit-Kat Klock. A father who dotes on his Ferrari more than his child, thus sending him into the clutches of a selfish high school slacker playing hooky one afternoon in Chicago. Identify your main plot and the others can be ancillary. Note that your main plot doesn’t have to be specifically out of this list. I write a lot of mysteries, the plot is always to solve the crime, but the details around the crime, the motive, setting, characters, etc. all carry the theme. The beats of mystery are just the canvas upon which the themes play out.

Next, or rather concurrently, identify some symbols. A white elephant is a cultural icon that reflects money and happiness perfectly. I’d find a couple of places to drop that little easter egg into my story if I write it. Maybe also Golem from Lord of the Rings. His obsession with a piece of jewelry is well known, maybe more well known in our society of growing illiteracy than the white elephant. Gold might be a good symbol too because it’s heavy and worthless except for what some people think. Corn is much more valuable when you think about it. And water.. There’s that great old Twilight Zone where a bunch of bank robbers are carrying gold across a desert to get away, but it’s heavy and it’s killing them. You could and should make new symbols too, defined in your story to carry the special take you have on it. For me, it might be a yellow house. It becomes a symbol when we see that our hero is working his ass off to pay for a place he can’t enjoy because he was working all the time to pay for it. Yellow might echo in other places to cement connections, car, an affair, a boat.

Thematic conflicts will arise from setting your pieces against each other. Homeless person and hippie would be a fun match. One is homeless by design, the other by tragedy. How are they different, the same? How will they interact? Both are going to die of dysentery without medical insurance if they live in America. Contrast/compare. A man might finally choose to throw it all away to become a writer instead of (insert any other job here) while his wife is studying to become a corporate lawyer. Family strife ensues when tuition comes due.

Oops… my space is up and then some. To recap, identify your theme, usually a question, and collect pieces—character, plot, setting, conflict symbols—that can be used to explore the theme. If you add theme to your repertoire of conscious scene building blocks, you’ll have just increased it from three (character, plot, setting), to four that’s a 33% increase in potential. The theme will also be present in the other three, so it’s more like 97%. Your reader will come away with a theme regardless, might as well have some say in it.

Lastly, papa don’t preach. It’s imperative that you honestly explore the questions. It’d be easy in my example to totally champion happiness over materialism, but let’s face it, being hungry sucks. A roof is important. Doctors aren’t free. You’re not the only person in your life—responsibly exists and children have needs. An honest examination of a theme will serve you well. It’s easy to fall into an agenda. Avoid that. Use the process to understand the questions and yourself. You might find many surprises. Remember your villain is the good guy in their story, so too is the opposite of what you think you’re attacking. Grays, live in grays. You’ll probably come to a conclusion at the end, your heroine joins the commune, the friends corner orange juice futures, whatever, but the question will have been explored and the solution will be understood to be for this case only. It’ll be satisfying for the reader who will have travelled and investigated with you in your story, their minds forever enhanced for the journey. Their wisdom increased. The world changed.


JOHNNY WORTHEN is an award-winning, multiple-genre, tie-dye-wearing author, voyager, and damn fine human being! Trained in stand-up comedy, literary criticism, and cultural studies, he writes upmarket fiction, long and short, indie and traditional, mentors others where he can, and teaches creative writing at the University of Utah. He is a founding member of the Utah chapter of the HWA, a full member of SFWA, RMFW, Pikes Peak Writers, and a lifetime member of the League of Utah Writers. He gets around.

At www.johnnyworthen.com you can learn about his best-selling book series, sign up for his Seldom Used Mailing List®, and be rewarded with a free Tony Flaner novella the possession of which will instantly transform you into one of the cool kids.

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