If the word “theme” gives you flashbacks to high school lit class and your withered soul is croaking “Kiiiiill meeeee,” relax. This is not about guessing the intention of some writer who’s been dead for 400 years (or, more accurately, guessing what the teacher’s guide guesses was the intention of some writer who’s been dead for 400 years). There will not be a test. Theme is but a tool in the writer’s toolbox, as a hammer is in a carpenter’s. The person reading the book or sitting in the chair can sense the stability of the structure without ever thinking about the tools used to achieve it. Only the craftsman needs to know how it was accomplished.
In fables, the theme is the “moral.” John Truby says theme is “making a moral argument about how best to live.” Blake Snyder agrees theme argues the pros and cons of living a particular way. Robert McKee calls theme a “controlling idea,” one clear, coherent sentence that expresses how and why the protagonist’s life will change and shapes the writer’s strategic choices. Brian McDonald calls theme “armature,” a skeleton that’s never seen by the reader but supports the entire structure.
If it helps you feel less preachy, think of theme as a hypothesis that you’re telling this story to prove. It’s a single, declarative, cause-and-effect statement, such as “Doing X results in Y” or “If X, then Y.” The theme’s truth will be demonstrated when bad things happen to the protagonist as he resists the theme (which he must do in the beginning, or there’s no character arc) and good things happen the more he conforms to and finally embraces the theme. Antagonists will be punished for their failure to get on the theme train. Subplots are models or warnings about theme compliance, which is how seemingly unrelated events can be tied into the main plot in a satisfying and relevant way.
Despite the off-putting descriptions of theme as a vehicle for moralizing, theme is doing major heavy lifting structurally. It determines character arc (protagonist learns this lesson and triumphs — or, if you’re writing tragedy, fails to learn and is destroyed), plot (events have to occur that give the protagonist opportunities to learn the lesson), secondary characters (who function as the protagonist’s lab partners at this school of hard knocks or as case studies in subplots), and antagonist (whose core problem is noncompliance with the theme and who will ultimately be redeemed or destroyed by it, just like the protagonist).
Theme is also a disciplinary tool to keep a writer on course. In a novel-length piece of fiction, very little happens spontaneously. A lot of the story is setting up what happens later, so the only connection chapters 2, 3, and 4 may have to the theme is that they’re getting the protagonist to the theme test in chapter 5. While it’s undesirable to ceaselessly beat the reader about the head with theme, you also can’t stray too far from it because you have to get to that test in chapter 5 on time. (These are arbitrary chapter numbers, by the way. There’s no magic formula. There may be suggestions, but the flexibility and circumstantial variation makes them practically meaningless in practice.) There is no end to the temptations that will try to seduce you away from your hypothesis, each of them glorious and shiny and promising endless fun if you just abandon your boring old mission. Those indeed may be great ideas! If they don’t prove your hypothesis, though, jot them down to explore in a future story and get your ass back to work on your current theme. The message of the theme is a test for the characters, but the concept of theme itself is the writer’s test — if you follow it, good things will happen to your story, and if you don’t, your story will be a bunch of meaningless tangents that may entertain but won’t resonate.
Some writing guides advocate having a character in the story outright state the theme near the beginning, but I think that’s the gateway to slapping the reader upside the head with a sermon. Remember, there’s not going to be a test later. The reader doesn’t have to write an essay identifying and exploring your theme. It’s your tool, and surface evidence of its use can be subtle as long as it’s doing the job below the surface.
The theme of Silent Song is something like “To escape a life limited by fears and burdens, you must trust your allies to do their parts.” The consequence of theme failure (which I find helpful to include in the plan to direct the path of early noncompliance) is “When you try to do everything yourself because you don’t trust others, you become a prisoner in a hell of your own making.”
First thing, I needed a pair of main characters already in hell because of their trust issues. The first time we meet Gin and the first time we meet Lex, they aren’t trusting people to do their jobs. No one comes out and says, “You know, all your problems would be solved if you’d trust me to do my job.” I show the lack of trust, I show the friction it causes, and I trust the reader will see the pattern when I show the lack of trust and resultant friction again — in a bigger way each subsequent time because the lesson won’t be learned until it stings and burns and peels away the skin.
Gin’s lack of trust results in her taking on more responsibility than she has to, and she feels burdened and anxious and low-key resentful (primarily toward herself). Lex’s lack of trust manifests in a career-limiting phobia, played a large part in his alcoholism, and inhibits him from engaging in many meaningful relationships. They both think the opportunity that brings them together again could be an elaborate practical joke or a revenge plot, and feelings get hurt because “How could you think I’d stoop so low?” Each thinks they committed horrible, unforgivable acts against the other in the past, and they’ve been punishing themselves ever since — the theme, meanwhile, says, “You dumbasses could have been happy this whole time if you’d just trusted each other to understand, but I can make the point a whole lot sharper if it will help get through those thick heads of yours.”
How does lack of trust affect other key characters? One of Gin’s business partners feels unappreciated and undermined when Gin offers to take over one of her jobs — to show the lesson has been learned, this has to be rectified by the end of the story with a display of total trust. Gin’s other business partner has doubts about his romantic relationship that keep him from fully committing — he’s one of the case studies the theme punishes until he falls in line to serve as an example of theme failure to the main characters. The villain got away with a crime ages ago, but one thoughtless comment makes him doubt his continued security — he’s willing to commit multiple additional crimes because he doesn’t trust an apparent witness who kept her mouth shut for a decade to remain silent now, actions that change his stakes from “getting away completely unscathed” to “never getting out of prison” if he makes one little mistake on this course set by his distrust.
If each of the above trust friction points was addressed with one introduction and one resolution, there would be 14 plot events right there — but nothing gets introduced and resolved without at least one interim effort, and I didn’t even get into issues with several other characters and specifics between Gin and Lex, so building plot just from the theme’s effect on characters yields well over 60 necessary plot events. Arrange those, fill in the wordy bits, and you’ve got practically a whole novel.
One sentence — that isn’t even in the book! — constructed the whole book. That’s a hell of a tool, yeah?
In the end, the protagonist can’t kinda sorta get the theme. The resolution is not the time to be subtle. Nobody wins the ultimate prize and lives happily ever after by half-assing it. Learning the theme’s lesson is the secret weapon that ensures victory in the story’s climax, the final boss fight, the world championship of sportsball. You can’t just wave it around aimlessly and expect to vanquish the forces of evil blocking the protagonist from his goal. He seizes the theme and pulls it from the stone where it’s been lodged for the whole story because he owns that theme now, and it lights up with his newfound power of understanding and smites the opposition.
Gin and Lex end up in a literally life-or-death situation and have to trust each other to do their parts, without the ability to communicate with each other. They have that trust, and the theme rewards them by not killing them. To wrap up his arc and prove the change is permanent, Lex trusts someone to help him with a task he initially insisted on doing alone and trusts a lot of people to help him cope with his phobia (though not magically overcome it because THAT’S NOT HOW IT WORKS). To wrap up her arc and prove the change is permanent, Gin relinquishes her responsibility for a grown woman who ought to be able to take care of herself and gives her business partner all the responsibility she could ever want. Only after trust frees them from their fears and burdens does the theme reward them with their happily ever after.
Lack of trust in the beginning comes with a corresponding lack of happiness. Full trust at the end allows full happiness. Hypothesis proven for this story. Theme’s mission accomplished.