Theme: an Important Writers’ Tool

Ever leave a theater feeling, “Huh?” That’s because the film didn’t end on Theme.

“Theme” is a problematic word because it has several definitions. In the context of writing a story, Theme is not the motif, not the moral, not the message.

What is Theme?

In the context of writing a story, Theme is the major emotional issue your story is about.

Theme can be expressed in a single word or two, such as “Courage” or “False assumptions.” For instance, there are many stories with the Theme “love” (which is why they’re called love stories) and each one can have a different message, such as “Love is blind,” “Make love not war,” “Love hurts”

Don’t confuse Theme with genre. A story about “love” can be Mainstream, Sci-fi, Horror, Mystery etc.

Ever wonder why so many “love” stories start with the main characters hating each other? That’s because stories can explore all aspects of a Theme, especially its opposite. To help your story explore, think of your Theme as paired with its opposite, such as “love/hate” “courage/cowardice.”

A story focuses on a theme like an article focuses on a topic, but an article’s topic is overt (obvious), and a story’s theme is covert (not obvious to the reader).

Theme adds depth. Theme gets stories published. Great films and great prose stories have Theme. However, Theme is not a highfaluting literary conceit – Theme is a tool.

Using Theme as a tool

Successful writers and film directors use Theme to connect all the parts of their story, so at the end, readers/viewers feel (at the subconscious level) they’ve experienced a story that was about something.

Books and films have room for several minor themes that connect to the main theme.

A short story has room for only one theme or it feels unfocused; the reader feels adrift.

Theme helps the reader feel anchored throughout and satisfied at the end.

Fiction writers may decide their theme ahead of time, or discover it through their POV character.  True Story writers usually discover the theme as they write, because the theme of a true story is already hidden within.

True Story writers can also use the same real life material for different stories by slanting their material to different Themes (choosing which factors to emphasize).

An Example of the Use of Theme

Films make good examples because they are a widely shared visual experience. In the animated film, Finding Nemo, the plot starts with Nemo losing his mother, so his father worries about losing Nemo, and Nemo gets lost, so his father sets out to find him, and he meets Dory who keeps losing her memory, but she finds her memory just in time to help him find Nemo in the end. You probably guessed that the theme of Finding Nemo is “lost/found.”

Practice Theme detection

Watch a good film with a friend – just enjoy it, don’t worry about Theme. Afterward, discuss what its Theme might be (only the director knows for sure). When you have decided on some options, list everything in the film that connects to those options, including the subplots and main character’s ET. Start easy, with films whose Theme is in the title, like the films Parenthood and Doubt.

Tip for deciding/discovering your own story’s Theme

Your Theme will be very closely connected to your POV character’s emotional truth.  E.g. In the “love” story Romeo and Juliet, Romeo starts out “brokenhearted,” then feels “love at first sight,” and in the end, “dies for love.”

Use your story’s Theme as a tool

  • To analyze your early draft for which things fit, and which don’t.
  • To slant things things that don’t initially fit, so you can keep them.
  • To create subplots
  • To decide on your story’s structure – where it starts, what’s in the middle, and where it ends – because Theme needs to be in the beginning, sprinkled throughout, and at the very end – so readers don’t come to the end of your story and think, “Huh?”

An Example of Using Theme to Get Published

The first part of this example is the ending of one of my true stories, written before I learned about Theme.  It was rejected.  The second part of the example is the ending of the same story, revised after I learned about Theme.  It became my first published work, “The Laundry Quandary.”

Brief plot summary up to this point – It is twenty years ago, and I’m living on the edge of Seoul, Korea. I don’t speak Korean, and the only local who speaks English is Mr. Pek, the solemn grocer. Before he retired and bought the little grocery, he had worked at the American Embassy in Seoul.  He has offered to help me in an emergency. My laundryman, Mr Ding, speaks only one word of English: “Okay.” Before this scene opens, Mr. Ding accidentally stained my white shirt and indicated he would fix it.

…A month later my white shirt still hung on the same hook, still untouched, still stained. I pointed to it and politely arched my eyebrows at him.

“Okay!” he grinned, and kept ironing.

This could not go on. I wasn’t angry, just frustrated. If I took back the shirt so I could fix it myself he would lose face, and I didn’t want to do that to him. But when did he intend to fix it? It wasn’t the principle of the thing any more, it was the not knowing.

Trudging home, I passed Mr. Pek’s grocery. Mr. Pek!  Though I couldn’t call a stained shirt an emergency, maybe he would help.  Having worked at the American embassy, he was the perfect person to help me with my diplomatic problem.

I found him on his knees by the front counter, stocking bags of squid chips. He stood at my greeting, rising taller than the average Korean, about five-foot-ten. He smoothed back his graying pompadour, brushed the dust off his apron and solemnly waited for me to speak.

I chose my words carefully so he wouldn’t think I was angry, “Can you please ask Mr. Ding when he will fix my shirt?”

He frowned. “Fix?”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but he accidentally stained it and I need to know when he will fix it.”

“Fix means set,” said Mr. Pek.

“What?”

“Fix mean set!” he repeated as if I were deaf, “You want him to set stain?”

“Oh no!” I laughed. “I’m sorry. Fix means to repair.”

He looked down his nose at me, “Fix means set.” He reached behind the counter and pulled out a Korean/English dictionary. He looked up ‘fix.’ “Aha!” He jabbed a finger on the spot. “To fix: to set. Changch’ihada.”

But that was just the first definition; there were several: to make firm, kojonshik’ida; to decide, choghada… Had I been using the word wrong all these years? But there it was, at the very bottom: to repair, koch’ida.

“Aha!” I pointed to it.

“You repair car,” he said. “Not stain.”

“No, the shirt. I want the shirt repaired.”

“Is same. You can not repair shirt.”

I thought about looking up “repair” but had the feeling he would still win the debate. Best to start over. I found “stain” in the dictionary, just in case it was a problem word too. “Mr. Ding stained my shirt,” I said, and showed him the place in the book.

“To stain,” we read together, “to blot, to spot, to make foul, torop’ida.”

“Oh!” he gasped. “Torop’ida!?”

I nodded, uncertain. My shirt hadn’t been befouled, exactly.

“You want stain out?”

“Yes! Out!”

“Okay!” He tore off his apron, slammed it on the counter and strode up the lane on long legs. I had to run to catch up. At the laundry shop he plowed through the coats and immediately started to yell, jabbing a finger in Mr. Ding’s face and pointing back at me where I cowered by the door, horrified. Mr. Pek filled the room, the top of his head grazing the dry-cleaning ceiling, his hair standing on end, alive with static electricity. He looked like a maniac; I didn’t dare interfere.

Mr. Ding stood speechless behind his ironing board, iron stopped on the up beat, his cigarette burning perilously close to his lower lip.

Mr. Pek’s tirade ended. He turned on his heel and confided to me as he passed by, “Is okay now.”

I winced at each thump and blast of steam as my laundryman ironed with even more vigor than usual. I wished I knew the word for sorry, but could only croak “kamsamnida,” (thank you) and offer an apologetic smile.

He just scowled at the red dress on his ironing board and kept thumping and blasting away.

I avoided the laundry shop for several days, until Paul and I were down to our last undies. I considered buying more, but that would be cowardly.

It was late in the evening when I finally dropped by. I watched from the street as Mr. Ding loaded the dry-cleaning machine with one hand while holding a lit cigarette in the other.

I entered cautiously, unsure what my reception would be. He just handed me my bag of clean laundry as if nothing had happened between us. Then I noticed that a stranger’s suit jacket hung on the hook that had held my shirt for so long. I pointed to it. He grinned. I grinned back, relieved and pleased that progress had been made with no hard feelings. Though exactly how much progress I didn’t know.

Outside again, a gentle rain had begun to fall, and the air smelled of Spring and dry-cleaning fluid. I swung the bag onto my shoulder and started home.

A short wooden door stood ajar. I’d never seen it open before. Through the opening I could see into a narrow room next to the laundry shop. In the bleak light of a bare bulb, a woman I’d never seen before was hunched over a brown plastic washtub, scrubbing my jeans on a washboard.

I felt awful that for six months she had slaved on her knees over my dirty laundry. It had never occurred to me that my laundryman didn’t have a washing machine. Uncomfortable and embarrassed, not wanting her to see me, I slipped past without a word and hurried down the hill. Her steady whooshing echoed after me.

Paul was asleep when I got home, so I unbagged the laundry on the kitchen table. And there, at the bottom of the bag, was my white shirt. I spread it out on the kitchen table. Not a trace of the blue stain.

This time it really was okay. (end)

Did you just feel “Huh?” That’s because the story didn’t end on Theme.

Then I learned about Theme, and figured out the story was about False Assumptions. But for the story to end on false assumptions, it had to end on the scene with the laundry woman, because she was my biggest false assumption. But not making contact with her was a weak ending. So I had to invent a new ending, which meant calling it fiction. The following revision won first place in a fiction contest, then became my first published piece.

The power of Theme!

Here is the revised ending (published as fiction):

I avoided the laundry shop for several days, until Paul and I were down to our last undies. I considered buying more, but that would be cowardly. Instead I took the two-hour bus ride into downtown Seoul to buy an English/Korean dictionary — I didn’t want to bother Mr. Pek again — and memorized the word ‘mianhan’: ‘I’m sorry.’

I peeked at Mr. Ding through the coats as he loaded the dry-cleaning machine with one hand, his lit cigarette in the other. I entered cautiously, unsure what my reception would be. He smiled and gave me my bag of clean laundry as if nothing had happened between us.

A strangers suit jacket hung on the hook that had held my shirt for so long. I pointed to it, my smile full of hope.

He jammed his cigarette in his mouth, snatched my bag back and dropped it on the floor.

Mianhan!” I cried, “Mianhan!”

He stooped and untied the handles. And there, right on top, lay my white shirt: ironed, folded, and crammed in like always. It held its mashed shape when he pulled it out, stuck together with its own humidity. He shook it loose with a flourish. The stain was gone.

I grinned with relief. “Kamsahamnida!”

He grinned back, folded the shirt in midair, paused to flick an ash from its collar, then stuffed it back in the bag. I gave him my won, he handed me my bag of laundry. Our relationship resumed its easy, comfortable rhythm.

Some months and many wash loads later, I was returning home late from the bathhouse. Raincoats hung from my laundryman’s awning. The night smelled of spring and dry-cleaning fluid. Soon, I could go home to America.

I heard a faint whoosh, whoosh, whoosh in the dark. Next to the laundry shop a wooden door stood ajar. I’d never seen it open before. I could see through the opening into a deep and narrow concrete room, bleakly lit by a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. Draped on a drying rack were Paul’s bikini briefs, parading in bold colors. Behind them on another rack hung my own pale panties. The mystery of the damp laundry was solved: my laundryman didn’t have an automatic dryer. I’d made another false assumption. I considered adding them up, but that would be embarrassing.

Then I spied the source of the whooshing sound, and went cold with shock and dismay.

Behind the drying racks, kneeling on the concrete, hunched over a brown plastic washtub, was a woman I’d never seen before. She was scrubbing my jeans on a washboard.

Mr. Ding had a dry-cleaning machine, a sewing machine, even an ironing machine — it had never crossed my mind he wouldn’t have a washing machine.

But he did in a way: this woman — his wife? Alone in this room. That’s why my clean laundry had never smelled like smoke. And if she was the washer, was she responsible for the blue stain? I dearly hoped Mr. Ding hadn’t passed on Mr. Pek’s tirade in kind.

She glanced up and saw me. She stopped scrubbing, her forearms opalescent with suds.

I wanted to say, I appreciate all your hard work – I hope my money will go toward a washing machine. I wanted to say, I’m sorry if I got you in trouble – I should have thrown the shirt away, but I didn’t know you were the washer. I am so sorry – it never occurred to me that you existed at all.

But all I could say was, “Kamsahamnida. Mianhan. Okay?”

She gave me a shy, confused smile and returned to her work.

As I walked down the hill, her steady whoosh, whoosh, whoosh echoed after me. (end)

Now that you have felt the difference Theme makes, Happy self-editing!

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