Theme matters

A post at Writer Unboxed: Yes, Virginia, Story Themes Still Matter

I don’t think anyone has actually been arguing that themes are unimportant, but absolutely, sure, themes matter. This is true even if you can’t tell what exactly your themes are until your readers tell you. That happens to me pretty often, though these days sometimes I spot themes for myself.

Anyway, yes, themes definitely do matter. They’re what gives the story depth and truth.

Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth! — LeGuin

And it is the truth, because if you hit something thematically true, then it’s true no matter what story surrounds it.

From the linked post:

Yet, given the vast market for genre fiction today, grounded in highly entertaining plots, has the importance of theme diminished? Will the age of AI further erode its prominence? Or are we as a species wired to find patterns in both our world and the stories we consume, a need fulfilled by stories laden with themes?

Highly entertaining plots are not in opposition to themes, though they may be in opposition to openly stated messages. Let’s say we have two normal curves into which all fiction fits. Here they are:

These are independent axes. The same exact book can appear in the middle of one curve and way over in the tail of the other curve. The same novel might be way over on the lefthand side of the upper curve, but way over on the righthand side of the other curve. Ideally, a novel will be well over to the right on both curves. These are the books that may find a wide readership AND readers will also say they “resonate.” These are books that cause book hang-overs, that are remembered for a long time, that readers go back and re-read. Here’s one such book:

I’m not saying that this is the all-time greatest example or that it’s the farthest over on the righthand tail. I’m picking it because I read it pretty recently and thought the themes were quite clear, but not so clear that they would interfere with MG readers loving the story. I think it’s well over on the righthand side for both axes. Here’s another:

A completely different style of novel, still fantasy, but so utterly different that it’s practically in a different genre. Once again, the themes are clear, but hidden in a compelling plot. (Maybe I should have said compelling rather than entertaining). Again, I think this book is well over to the right on both axes.

What I don’t like is when the message is so central that the plot becomes an afterthought. It doesn’t matter whether the message is great or horrible, in either case, the novel is not succeeding all that well as a novel. But a novel can be compelling without capturing something true. Here, look at this one:

Because I disliked the deep worldview shown in this novella, for me, this story belongs somewhere on the righthand side of the upper graph, but way over in the left tail of the lower graph. Except here I would say “false” rather than “clever and facile.” I vehemently disagree with the themes buried within this story — that you can’t win against evil, that such victories are hollow, that family bonds are cages that mothers need to escape, and so forth. But the themes are buried in the story. I mean, maybe not all that deeply, but the story is compelling. I read the story all the way through.

Emphasizing highly entertaining plots has nothing to do with reducing the importance of themes.

And no, for the foreseeable future, AI will not be able to write a novel with a coherent, deep, hidden theme. Maybe with a message that is right out in the open, but not with a deep theme tucked out of sight in a compelling narrative. That’s my prediction. We’ll see how that looks in five years.

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2 thoughts on “Theme matters”

  1. Would you agree that in the Tuyo novels, the theme is family- found family (Tano) , chosen family, not only coming of age; and that in Tasmakat the theme is parenthood, that Ryo is in that space where parent becomes child while also becoming parent to his own children?

  2. Alison, I think an important theme in Ryo’s trilogy is family, period. Finding your place in your family; redefining your place in your family; the importance of others in your family making room for you to grow into yourself. I’m not sure how to express this. The importance of maintaining relationships while also letting those relationships change.

    And yes, found family is part of that. There’s almost no distinction in Ugaro society, where if you declare someone is your brother, everyone accepts that this is true in an important way. That’s true sometimes in Lau society as well, just with legalistic trappings on the top; we see that with Esau and Pir.

    I don’t really think about this. Then someone says “Hey, is this what you see as the theme?” and then I do think about it. I’m definitely all about making a place for yourself, and others helping make that place for you, and having it be a solid place that lets you grow into yourself. About changing in good ways and those around you making room for that to happen.

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