The concept of theme means different things in different settings. In high school literature class we are told that ‘theme’ is a word — a sort of abstract noun like ‘love’ or ‘independence’. This is okay — this gets most students passing year 11 English, but if you go on to study literature, or if you’re a writer, the single word example of theme isn’t enough.
THEME AS USED IN EVERYDAY ENGLISH
“Well, the theme of today’s meeting was definitely muffins.”
In everyday usage, ‘theme’ can refer to any collection of ideas which are somehow connected.
DEFINITION FOR WRITERS
A theme is a sentence, not a single word.
Theme is a coherent sentence that expresses a story’s irreducible meaning.
WAR is not a theme. War is a setting.
LOVE is not a theme. Love is a genre (Romance, love story)
TEEN DRUG ABUSE is not a theme. Teen drug abuse is subject matter.
THEME AND SCREENWRITING
Screenwriters are tasked with the job of coming up with a great hook and logline — even more so than novel writers because of the big budgets involved and because the traditional movie-going audience are looking for high concept stories. Accordingly, screenwriters think of ‘theme’ a little differently. They like to attach their own words to the concept. (The skeptic in me thinks that’s partly so they can package their own brands… But in the end we should pick the version that makes sense to us.)
Well-known screenwriting guru Robert McKee prefers the phrase ‘Controlling Idea’, because ‘theme’ is now used widely in colloquial language and doesn’t mean what he wants it to mean. McKee says the theme (controlling idea) exists to tell the emotional lesson of a story. This sounds a little like math class but if your brain works like this:
The Controlling Idea = Value changed by Cause
Value means the primary value in its positive or negative charge that comes into the world or life of your character as a result of the final action of the story.
Cause refers to the primary reason that the life or world of the protagonist has tuned to its positive or negative value.
e.g. Justice (VALUE) triumphs (the change) because the hero is smarter than the villain (CAUSE).
Another screenwriting guru, John Truby, thinks in terms of ‘moral argument’ and ‘symbol web’. According to Truby, theme exists to show “The writer’s view of the proper way to act in the world.”
THEME IN YOUR OWN STORIES
The best way to get a handle on the concept of theme is to write sentences summing up your own stories. Then do the same for your favourite stories by other writers. I used McKee’s formula to write the controlling ideas (after the fact).
The theme of The Artifacts: Hope (VALUE) is restored (CHANGE) because a boy realises the value of knowledge and abstract joys over the amassing of material wealth (CAUSE).
The theme of Midnight Feast: Adult-like awareness of poverty (VALUE) is gained (CHANGE) when a girl stays up late one night and sees the poverty right outside her home (CAUSE).
The theme of Hilda Bewildered: A young princess learns to deal with performance anxiety (CHANGE) when she learns the power of visualisation (VALUE) on the night of her first speech (CAUSE).
The theme of Diary of a Goth Girl: It is only after the grim reaper comes for a pessimistic try-hard goth (CAUSE) that she learns (CHANGE) the value of human kindness (VALUE).
Theme might also be expressed like this, embracing the didactic (moralistic) aspect of the story. This is often done for children’s stories.
The Artifacts: It’s better to collect knowledge and experiences than material wealth.
Midnight Feast: It’s fairly easy to ignore poverty even when it’s right outside your own window.
Hilda Bewildered: Difficult real life situations become surmountable once harnessing the power of visualisation.
Children’s literature seems to have a higher tolerance for didacticism (though the trend is against it), so you’ll often find themes written like that somewhere in the advertising copy.