I don't think theme has to be something good. It doesn’t have to present you with any answers, or with an explanation.
It is just the seed of an idea, something that gets inside your gut and makes you feel.
Some examples of what I think theme can be (though subjective is the word to remember):
Alfred Hitchcock's 1940 film 'Rebecca', based on Daphne du Maurier's 1938 novel, begins as a charming romance only to dissolve into a sinister murder mystery. Yet to me, the theme seems to be about identity.
The protagonist of this story is a young naive woman who enters the vast home and upper-class society of her new husband, an enigma of a man who may or may not have murdered his wife (and who delivers some classic lines such as 'I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool!').
The most interesting thing about this entire story though, is that the protagonist is never once referred to by her own name.
The audience never learns this woman's name.
She is simply referred to as 'my dear' or Mrs de Winter, as if by marrying into this family she has lost her own identity.
Even worse, the entire film pits her against the beautiful (and dead) first wife of her new husband, the 'Rebecca' of the title, a woman who is absent from the story, but in many ways, is its star, leaving the protagonist living in her shadow.
So the theme to me is identity, the idea of feeling like an impostor in your own life, like you must live up to an expectation, with no one recognising you for what you truly are.
The theme of the excellent, and oft times disturbing, UK television series, 'Black Mirror' may seem pretty obvious, but that is why it is such a great example.
The name 'Black Mirror' refers rather ominously to the screens of our smartphones and computers when they go dark, and this same distinct theme runs through every episode of the series, each a stand alone story about the impact of technology on our lives.
Episodes are frequently dark and upsetting as they explore the human experience of technology, and sure, many are set in the future or alternative universes, yet the stories always seem to be a reflection of some aspect of technology that exists right now, the dark theme therefore becoming a direct reflection of the world we live in, for better or worse.
I love this quote about theme from the really fantastic writer's resource website ‘Writer’s Edit’, which in my opinion says it best:
'The theme is not the plot of your story but the heart of it. It is what holds a story together – and it’s the theme that readers will be left with after they have finished reading.'
I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. Theme to me is emotion based. This is because I believe emotion is literally the most powerful element within any story, ever.
Nothing can top it. Ever.
But how do we add theme into our projects, how do we write a novel with a theme that makes the reader feel emotion?
Well, I literally have no idea.
Which is exactly why I am writing this post, using it as an opportunity to explore the idea of theme, and hopefully, just hopefully, learn how to use it effectively in the process.
So today for the topic of theme, I wanted to explore the original Star Wars trilogy, which are, to me, basically the greatest films ever made.
So when I think of these movies, what are the first ideas for themes that come into my head, right or wrong?
And overall, as a full story?
For me, the original Star Wars trilogy has always been about Luke and his personal journey.
So in a way the theme for me is still this idea of lost innocence, of reality creeping through, a darker undercurrent beneath the adventure and the victory. The idea that what you experience will forever change you, and once changed, you can never ever go back.
So... what does it mean?
Nothing. It doesn’t mean anything.
It just displays a single aspect of the complex human experience. It makes us contemplate what it means to....... be human?
Is that what theme is?
And to further complicate matters, is this the overall theme that you grasped from the original Star Wars trilogy if you've seen it?
Or did you find an entirely different theme and meaning within that story to move you?
I think theme can be so subjective, because different aspects of a story will always speak to different people,
So the question I wanted to ask, is:
When you are writing a story, have you already got a theme in mind?
Do you write your story to match that theme?
Or do you just wing it and hope a theme emerges from your work as you move along?
I am super interested to know....