Theme folds in meaning to our writing and gives a recognisable shape to the underlying structures that form the narrative. Without theme the narrative can feel flat or disjointed, but a strong theme provides an overall consistency that holds everything in place. Scenes, characters, and events take on new poignancy, attracting deeper sympathies. Most importantly, a theme the reader can identify with locks the story in their heart, right where you want it. Theme is powerful, and as such, it must be handled carefully. Too much and you risk contrived characters and preachy sentiment. Too little, and the plot may fail to resonate, or seem entirely pedestrian. Worse, a completely soulless narrative may cause the reader to abandon it entirely.
Balance is everything. Nowhere is this more important than when the theme of the story is less archetypal (e.g.: ‘life finds a way’, or ‘love conquers all’) and more specifically an agenda of ideas the writer feels strongly about (e.g.: ‘usurp the patriarchy’, or ‘consumerism is killing the planet’): ideas-driven stories like these may be ideological or political in motivation, or involve a similarly impassioned topic. In these cases the theme is required to be clear so that the ideas can crystallise in the reader’s perception and they finish with little doubt as to what the story was trying to say. The danger here is that these ideas become so dominant in the writer’s craft that the story itself plays second fiddle: the narrative becomes a mouthpiece, a pamphlet, with a cobbled together fiction tacked on at the end.
Consider Aldous Huxley’s satirical classic, Brave New World. The first fifth of the novel is a masterpiece in world-building, evoking – through powerful imagery and a structured beat – the dystopia of his nightmares. Beyond this strong start, however, the integral flaws of the narrative begin to show: flat characterisation, poorly paced development, and a dull plot severely compromise the reader’s sympathies and suspension of disbelief. The ideas are given too much precedence. Leading from the front, they get in the way of the story, and so the entire narrative suffers.
By contrast, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four paces the discussion of his ideas alongside the developing desires of the protagonist. Winston’s need for self-expression is continually hindered by the oppressive regime he lives within. The ideas at the heart of Orwell’s satire have a narrative function: they act as a buffer against which the protagonist must continually rise against if he is to succeed in fulfilling his desire. This continues until it is no longer self-expression but survival itself that is being fought for: the ideas become ever more potent and dominant but Winston’s desires increase to battle them. Characterisation is balanced in a taut dyadic with theme.
Structure, then, can be an excellent tonic to balancing the demands of powerful, ideas-driven fiction. But it can be a daunting task for any writer with an agenda and a blank page in front of them. Where do we start? Stephen King suggests, in his excellent On Writing, that theme is largely the reserve of the editing process. Theme, therefore, is latent in your writing. It is the writer’s job, in the edit, to excavate this and bring it forward into a recognisable and resonant state. The problem for ideas-driven writers is that often this isn’t enough: there just isn’t sufficient control over the process – too much is left to chance. The theme may end up not as powerful as hoped for, or perhaps different entirely. But is this the fault of the writing or the writer? If theme is latent in our work, then it stands that whatever we care about most will likely manifest within the text we create. If you really believe in the ideas you want to give voice to, then a voice will come through. Having faith in this process is simply part of the writer’s job. If the theme isn’t what you expected, than the question to ask is: did you really care about those ideas enough to begin with?
By focussing on plot and characterisation and letting the theme come through naturally, you create a more authentic and resonant fiction. Your readers will thank you for it.
An edition of this article first appeared at LiteratureWorks on 21st March 2014.