What's in a Theme? wonders Griselda Heppel

Sometimes when submitting my work, I get a question that stumps me: what’s the theme of your story?

It’s a story, I want to reply, it doesn’t have a theme. Which isn’t strictly true, but to expect a writer to sum up the  complex interweaving of character, purpose and plot that makes up a novel in one word feels to me like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I don’t know about you, but I don’t sit down and decide to write a book about human relationships, or loneliness, or the abuse of power, bullying, courage in the face of danger, overcoming difficulties or redemption. A story forms itself in my mind which will have all these elements and more, but it won’t be about any single one of these.

It will be about an unconfident, friendless 12 year-old girl who finds herself on a journey to the bottom of Hell (Ante’s Inferno), or a keen, geeky 13year-old boy, driven by desperation to make a pact with a demon (The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst). Or an angry 11 year-old sent away from home to a school where the only person who will speak to her is a weird, excitable 9 year old boy that all the other girls pretend isn’t there (The Fall of a Sparrow, current wip). Other elements are woven into the story - Greek mythology, Dante’s Inferno and WW1 in the first book, Elizabethan magic and the Faustus legend in the second - but no single one of these becomes THE story’s theme and nor should it be. If you really want to boil my books down to a single theme, it’s about a young person who finds life and making friends difficult, who through a series of challenges and dangers gains self-knowledge and a better relationship with the world around them.

Not a great sales pitch, is it? I mean, you could summarise just about any book that’s ever been written this way - Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, The Three Little Pigs, for heavens sake,- and give no flavour of what they are really about.

Do we demand this of all works of literature, that each be identified by a single theme? How about:

Macbeth: the battle between Good and Evil. 
The Lord of the Rings: the battle between Good and Evil (with hobbits).
Harry Potter: the battle between Good and Evil (with wizards).
The Narnia Chronicles: the battle between Good and Evil (with multiple mythological creatures).
His Dark Materials: the battle between Good and Evil (with daemons).


I realise I may be missing something here. Worse, that if I can’t summon up an original way to label my stories, then maybe they are just not strong enough to stand out. I hope not. But I also suspect a covert laziness on the part of the person demanding a theme, to find an easy way to sell my book to their colleagues or (more likely) reject it out of hand. Your heroes have trouble making friends, do they? Ah, so that’s the Bullying Theme. We have enough of those on our list already, sorry.

This is my problem with themes. If you write children’s books, your main character is a child. They will have enemies or there would be no story. The enemies are not nice to them. This is called bullying. It is exactly what happens in books for adults, only there it’s called threatening, menacing, violent behavior etc, and the people who do it are Bad Guys, Villains, Psychos. Yet no publisher would dismiss a gripping, page-turning thriller just because yet again, it’s about Bad People Being Nasty to Good (or at least not so bad) People.

Bullying appears in my stories but they are not ‘about’ bullying. The behaviour arises from clashes between the characters, conflicting goals, problems in their own lives, troubled back stories and secret fears. All the ingredients, in short, needed to build characters strong enough to drive an exciting, complex, satisfying story where the reader really cares what happens.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway.


Umberto Tosi said…
You boil it all down well, good stock for cooking up tasty stew. The themes may be the same, but the spices make the reader really get into it all, as you rightly point out in your preceptive analysis.
Susan Price said…
You are so right, Griselda. Last week I read through a book I've been working on for a long time. I hadn't looked at it for months. Only on this last read-through did it become clear to me that it has a very strong theme of 'you can never know another person, even those you think you know best of all.' I never had any intention of writing to this theme.

And if people do like the book, it won't be because of its theme. It'll be because of the way it's told. That's all. What's P G Wodehouse' theme? The battle between Man and Aunts? It's the way he tells 'em.
Debbie Young said…
I agree with you, Griselda, both as a reader and as a writer - I don't go looking for themes in what I'm reading, or trying to articulate a theme to hang my story on. I studied English literature to degree level and by the end of it was so weary of having to over-analyse fiction that I didn't read an intelligent book for at least a year afterwards, instead reading exclusively trashy magazines (Cosmopolitan was in its heyday then!) I can understand the need for marketing purposes to try to pin a book with a back-of-an-envelope summary, but too often it threatens to sap the pleasure out of an otherwise excellent book!
Griselda Heppel said…
Thank you for all these brilliant comments. Yes, P G Wodehouse, the battle between Man and Aunts, I love that!

Very reassuring to find other writers feel the same, that even if there is an overall theme, it’s the story that brings it out, not the story written specially to answer a theme. And the story is what matters, whether it’s colourful, exciting, moving and gripping enough. That’s what the reader - rightly - cares about.

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