Today I read two really good posts on theme. The first, written by Becca Puglisi, reviewed a session on theme that she attended at a conference. In her post, Puglisi discusses the difference between the theme statement and the theme topic. Using the play Hamilton as an example, the theme statement was “You have no control over who lives, who dies and who tells your story.” The theme topic is much broader and expressed by fewer words. Again, for Hamilton, it would be legacy.
Puglisi goes on to explain that every character relates to this theme in some way but not in the same way. This is what creates the tension between characters and the tension in the plot although plot events may include wars, death, and more. The factor that ties it all together is legacy.
The second post, by Sacha Black, is all about using theme as a golden thread that ties everything in the story together. Her examples come from Hunger Games. Although she uses different terms, I’m going to use Puglisi’s terms to simplify things here. The theme statement is “sacrificing yourself can lead to a greater good.” The theme topic is sacrifice.
Again, she discusses positioning the protagonist and antagonist on opposite sides of this theme. Katniss sees the good that can be done by making personal sacrifices. President Snow only sees the good that can be done by sacrificing others. Instant tension.
This has me thinking about a book I just read – The Bookshop at Water’s End by Patty Callahan Henry. Very few books generate the discussion that this did at book club and a big part of that was the theme. Everyone is doing the best that they can at the time. I’ve yet to come up with a single word to summarize this – persevere? There was no protagonist vs antagonist play here largely because when someone had a problem it was more likely to be internal and self-created than with someone else.
Every character was fighting a different battle or, if they faced the same issues, dealt with them in very different ways. And the readers? We all have very strong opinions about this book. And, interestingly enough, I don’t think there was a single point at which we all agreed.
I’m not sure if this is something you can bring out from the start or if it is something that you have to bring the forefront as you rework a piece. Me? I’m hoping its the latter as I near 6000 words on my novel.