Writing 344: Theme Part 1: Overview

A Note: Theme is a huge topic, and it’s also fractal (we’ll get to that). Because it’s so fucking enormous, I’m breaking up my discussions of it into multiple parts. Without further ado:

Let me tell you a story that you’ve probably heard.

While I went to Emerson College, I had applied, and successfully placed into Advanced Screenwriting: a screenwriting class led by the “Semel Chair” who is generally an established screenwriter who can help to maintain themes. Considering my readership, it will remain one of Emerson’s best kept secrets.

The professor was the spectacular David Magee, writer of the screenplay Life of Pi, and, generally, an awesome guy. He’s a writer who knows exactly what he’s about; you can tell because he has that Schrodinger’s casual: where it’s clear that so much effort went into learning about how to write, that it all just sorta comes as natural.

So it’s our second day of class, and all twelve of us are sitting on this cafeteria like chairs in a tiny ass classroom facing a brick wall. There’s a white board taking most of the wall, and everything is blasted in white light. Today, we’re pitching our stories.

Mine is a biopic on the Tragic, Beautiful, and weirdly Timeless story of Nick Drake (to date, in progress). I get up there, ready to knock his socks off with my awesome idea for a biopic – parallel structures, music, scruffy looking depressed dudes, an encounter with the rolling stones – and, because I’m first, I’m given a simple question: “What is your Theme?”


If you have ever taken a writing course by anyone who knows how to actually write, then you have faced, and maybe railed against that question: I don’t need a theme, man, I’m talking about life; the universe; everything, my story is going to be great without theme.

Eh, yeah, no, you’re wrong, chill.

If you want to write, you need to know theme, and thematics. You don’t have to know fancy ten-clause sentences; you don’t have to know 3-act structure (oh, no, wait); you don’t have to be able to write epic set-pieces that move the heart and the mind; if you know how to write theme, you will never write a truly awful piece of writing.

With that said, you need to get to know theme. You need to check out theme from across the Starbucks where you and your laptop are straight chillin’. You have to play the eye game with theme, play coy, then get the nerve to walk up to theme, and ask it out. Then you have to take theme on a really awkward first date, and ask it about like…it’s life, or something. I don’t know, I’m shit at dates. Then you have to really get to know theme.

Then, you have to take it on a few more dates…three or more, and get so intimate with theme that it puts out, and you get bizzay. Heyyyy.

Ok, yeah, I agree, that was weird.

But the point stands: know theme. Write good. Not write well: write GOOD.

Because all writing is thematic, even when people make pains to point out that they didn’t choose a theme, or that their work doesn’t have a theme. Coming from a background of creative writing, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the sound of people’s eyes rolling when asked this question.

But you, you’re cool. Right?

Now that I’ve introduced, and creeped you out about it. Let’s actually get to brass tacks (not tax) here: what is theme, and why does it matter?

What Theme is, and Why it matters

Theme, is literally whatever your story is about conceptually; it’s also known as your Controlling Idea. It’s the intangible concept you decide to focus on directly, and center your writing around.

Every story has a theme, no matter what genre, execution, or medium. And, while it may not be as sexy as Character Arcs, or Action Set-Pieces, it is by far the most important thing you have to learn, if you want to write well, and you want to write consistently. I rank it even above sentences, and here’s why.

Let’s say you want to tell a story about… I don’t know, you’re great-grandmother Bertha. She led a fucking balls-out crazy life, and you want that shit on paper, because her story is so ridiculously cool that people will actually give you money to read it. Just, off. the. walls.

So you get all her anecdotes, you get a fancy type-writer, or a snazzy new laptop; you go to starbucks, all ready to be a writer, you sit down, you open word, and then…nothing. You stare at the Cursor and get bored, and then decide fuck it, maybe Bertha’s crazy nights trolling for strange in Tijuana in WWI weren’t actually that amazing after all. Maybe her being a pilot and going on crazy adventures with a half-insane orangutan, and having mad fun…well, it’s just not worth talking about.

Because here’s the thing. Any story sounds great in your head. You see all this cool and crazy shit happening. But, until you put your conceptual theme in there, it’s just going to be a bunch of scenes strung together.

So let’s go back to Bertha. Instead of saying “I’ll just write it out, and see what happens”, you say “Bertha did all these crazy things, but she really liked helping people; and, barring some questionable exploits with some hunky Tijuanan men…in world war I (dafuq), she was all about fighting the good fight, and doing insane things because she knew deep down, they were right”, my theme is “Selflessness”.

Selflessness is a great theme: it’s one word (muy importante), it’s not moral (important x10) and it’s widely applicable to the story at hand. It’s also binary, and fractal.

So you sit down, thinking about examples of things Berta did that were selfless, and things that she did, that were not selfless. An idea. You start with her crazier exploits where she only helped herself, and the first time she did something selfless, and how it changed her life.

And from there, you start writing, and you know which scenes to write about. You pick and choose all the scenes that illustrate what selflessness is – your antagonists are selfish, your Bertha becomes more selfless – and you create an arc, where before, there were just a bunch of stories. You craft scenes that give a sense of focus to Berta’s life. And her story is no longer just insane, it’s meaningful. Because theme, it’s a focus-ring baby.

Wait, what?

In the interest of your precious time, I’m not going to go into greater detail about theme quite yet. This is just a teaser, really (sorry love). But before I peace out, I want to provide a little more clarity on what I mean, so we’re on the same page about theme, moving forward.

Think of the Focus-Ring on a manual camera…or that little circular thing on your Android or iPhone when you want to take a super crisp selfie: this little thing at the end of the lens on your camera determines what objects will be sharp and detailed, and which will be blurry and fuzzy.

A good photographer can use Deep-Focus, and focus on everything, and may have to, if absolutely necessary. But often, great photographers blend fuzziness around the edges of what they want you to actually look at, and think about. If you’re taking a picture of a Carnation in a field of Dandelions, setting your Focus-Ring on the Carnation, getting it just right, will make certain that people know that that’s what you want them to focus on. Everything else is visible, but the subject that you’re focusing on is the one they’re looking at.

That is what Theme really does. It’s a focus-ring on your camera, that gives the piece of art you making meaning.

In the next few lessons, we will go into significantly more detail about what that means; but for now, I’d like you to look at some books, or movies that you really like and ask yourself: What is the theme of this?

Dun Dun DUN

I’m glad to have shared this story, and I hope I helped yours. Until next time.





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