I mentioned in my last post that because of the critique I was given on my latest project I was able to nail down my theme, which had changed from what I originally intended partway through writing. This was an important step for one huge reason that I will helpfully state for you bolded and underlined.

Theme Dictates Story

Essentially, the theme tells your audience what the story is about. Don’t confuse this with a moral, those are different. The theme is the message of the story, the final summarization of the actions of the characters. It can often be boiled down to one word. For example, one of the themes of Cloud Atlas is Jurassic Park is that nature will always have the upper-hand over mankind.

The theme is the culmination of actions and events. In The Inhabitors I had a serious problem with theme. I thought the theme was about death. Grieving. Coming to terms with your own mortality. I tried very hard to write to that, but there is a part in the script where the theme just shows up without my realizing it.

It takes place after the first major turning point in a conversation between the antagonist and a supporting character. It’s a well-worn theme, but I think it’s approached in a unique way here. The theme is redemption, and the question posed by this theme is whether or not someone can find redemption by explaining the reasons for their digressions. If who we think is a bad person has a reason for every immoral thing they’ve ever done, can we find forgiveness in that understanding? Is there empathy to be had? On a greater scale, can God forgive us for our sins if those sins were done for a reason? Are any of those reasons merely rationalizations?

The theme often bleeds into the moral of the story. This is what causes confusion when speaking to theme in an academic sense. It is also another reason why it’s so important. How can you push your characters toward something without knowing what that is? I’ve read from different people that you should either know your theme before writing, or find your theme through writing. Personally, I don’t think it matters too much. The theme will find you and if it doesn’t there might be a problem with your story.

The reason being is that storytelling is about having something to say. Something to add to another person’s understanding. Yet another reason why theme is important to your writing. The question of what an artist is trying to say dictates how the story is told.

I understand this post may seem a bit scattershot. That’s because I went into it with a clear idea of my theme for the post: Why is theme important? But as I wrote I started to realize more about its relation to other aspects of storytelling. Morals. Execution.

My point is, theme can be a sneaky bastard but its imperative to good storytelling. Stay open to changes in theme through the first draft, as your characters may open themselves up to a more coherent or deeper theme than the one you initially started with.