Diriye Osman Author of Fairytales for Lost Children. Photograph: Boris Mitkov
When comes to reading and writing fiction, the theme can be confusing as some people mixing up the idea with the plot. To put it in a nutshell, the Theme is the writer's message and the central idea or ideas explored in the story whereas the plot describes the main events and sequence of a story. Many of us read books that explore specific themes sometimes without even realizing it. As a writer, that comes in handy because that's what attracts us to writing because the themes mean something on a personal and emotional level.
What is a Theme in Creative Writing?
One of the first questions we normally ask about a book or story is, "What’s the point of the story?" or "What’s it about?". Simply, the core idea, topic, or point of a story is its theme. A look in the dictionary can lead us to two definitions of the Theme:
The main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, a movie, etc.
A particular subject or issue that is discussed often or repeatedly
As you can see, the first definition is why many confuse the theme with the plot. So, let's take the second which focuses on the concept of a story in defining the theme. A theme can be expressed concretely in a very general way or as a broad subject and any creative piece can have more than one theme. Here's an example from Fight Club to understand the theme better and how to differentiate it from the plot:
Plot: A depressed man suffering from insomnia meets a strange soap salesman named Tyler Durden and soon finds himself living in his squalid house after his perfect apartment is destroyed. The two bored men form an underground club with strict rules and fight other men who are fed up with their mundane lives. Their perfect partnership frays when Marla, a fellow support group crasher, attracts Tyler's attention. (source)
The themes: Consumerism, Perfection, and Modernity, Masculinity in Modern Society, Death, Pain, and the “Real” (search for identity).
C.S. Lakin on her blog Live Write Thrive calls the theme "the heart of a story." I like the idea because the idea of an idea being the heart of a story makes you think what a theme should be like in order to be the heart of a story? For me, possibly, it's because a theme both shows a fundamental idea or moral that the character learns as a result of the plot, and meantime, it tries to teach something to the reader as well.
However, there might be confusion here about the primary theme and the moral of the story. I can say that these concepts are certainly related but they're not synonymous. "A book’s moral is a lesson the author wishes to impart upon their audience. (As such, morals are often key components to children’s books and young adult literature.) By contrast, a book’s theme is not so much its lesson as it is an idea the author hopes the audience will mine for deeper meaning." (Source)
As Michael Hauge, the author of Writing Screenplays That Sell, explains a theme "is the prescription for living that the writer wants to give the audience or the reader." He adds that the theme is connected to the main characters' journey and the lessons learned by him/her define the character arc and demonstrates their transformation for the readers and this way let the readers learn those lessons.
How Themes Works in Fiction (Motifs vs. Symbols)
As a writer, you may take different approaches to themes in your work. You might start with an idea, issue, or theme in mind, but you might find that there are other themes that grow, emerge, or develop from the main theme. Sometimes, it's a conscious process but mostly, you'll figure it while editing. Once you find them, that's when you can more easily decide what to cut from your story and what to focus on more. This is because every writer makes their writing about something, intentional or not. That something, the essence of the story, is its theme.
Sometimes you know what themes you're writing about but other times the theme of the story will develop by itself after your first draft. The question then becomes how, exactly, do you develop a theme in your story? Well along with characterization, the best way to build your themes is through motifs and symbols. So these 3, are powerful tools for creating a theme that is easily understood and present in your story. Now you may ask: What are motif and symbols?
A motif is defined in the dictionary as a distinctive feature or dominant idea in an artistic or literary composition. It is a strong tool that helps you develop and inform your theme. The more a motif turns up in a story, the more prominently it will factor into your theme.
An example of a motif in Fight Club is "body parts". This book is littered with bags of body fat in the freezer, severed testicles, images of penises, and vaginas. The body parts motif in this book contributes to the theme of the rebellion of rejected parts and what characters try to hide. Palahniuk also combines the body parts motif with the literary technique of synecdoche (a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa) in which a part stands for a whole. When the narrator hears Marla and Tyler "humping" all night, he says "I am Joe's Prostate" and "I am Jane's Uterus." So, he's trying to personify the body parts. By this, Palahniuk shows that Tyler is not a separate person but a part of the narrator.
The motif can consist of a repeated factor that has symbolic significance to a story. It can be a recurring image, a repeated word, phrase, or topic expressed in language. (source) A motif can be a recurring situation or action. It can be a sound or smell, a temperature, even a color. So what is the key aspect of Motif? repetition
A symbol is a "literary device that contains several layers of meaning, often concealed at first sight, and is representative of several other aspects, concepts or traits than those that are visible in the literal translation alone." (source)
For example, in Fight Club, Tyler kisses on the member’s hand, and then pouring lye on it leaves a horribly painful kiss-shaped scar. The scar symbolizes the "painful pleasure" of Tyler’s philosophy. The excruciating pain of the lye is supposed to get them closer to the "real." So what is the symbol? A symbol is using an object or action that means something more than its literal meaning.
So, we can say that symbols are images, characters, an object, or figure that represent something beyond what is on the surface. In Fight Club, a series of recurring symbols (Tyler's kiss, birthmark, soap) build into a motif(body parts), and a series of motifs build into a theme (Death, Pain, and the “Real”).
Types of Theme
It's important to mention that themes are not always constantly present in a story rather, they can appear and disappear, can disappear entirely, or appear surprisingly mid-read. The reason is that there are two types of themes: major and minor.
1)Major Themes are the more important and enduring themes of the narrative. In fight club, the main theme is the search for identity. At the beginning of the story, the narrator has no individuality and he can be characterized as an “everyman in the modern society". What the narrator says or does at the beginning reflects his lack of identity (he's passive, slave to his job, lives out of a suitcase as he travels from city to city.) He doesn't have an identity of his own(no name, no mention of family or friends, seems to be living in a vacuum.)
Major themes are the most significant themes of the story, and often they are a part of the entire story. In Fight Club, the main character through his actions and image shows that the search for identity is a continuous struggle. This struggle turns to an unbearable battle to find a balance between the real and ideal selves for the narrator and finally decide to kill himself. Here, the main character demonstrates the universal battle to find one’s identity.
2) Minor Themes are less important and less enduring. They may be part of the story only to be replaced by another minor theme later. They provide some important points but don't color the entire story. If I want to pick a minor theme in Fight Club, I can say it's the absence of the father figure. Tyler and the Narrator bond when they share their stories about their fathers. Both mention that their fathers were not a major part of their lives. "With no distinct male role-models in their lives, the Narrator and Tyler have largely accepted the role of men in society as it has been presented to them by advertising. The aim is to secure a good job with a good salary, get married, and have children. The men of the fight club have seen an emptiness in this model and reject it." (source)
Transgressive Fiction Themes
In Review of Transgressive Fiction, I mentioned that the basic ideas of transgressive fiction are by no means new. Many classics dealt with controversial themes and harshly criticized societal norms. The early development of the genre was "anticipated in the work of early 20th century writers such as Octave Mirbeau, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Schnitzler, who explored psychosexual development." (source)
So, because Transgressive Fiction is normally rebelling against the basic norms of society, the main themes may be extensive taboo subject matters such as drugs, sexual activity, violence, incest, pedophilia, and crime. It also looks through a nihilistic perspective toward life. Rene Chun explains that Transgressive Fiction "graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge." (source)