The comment left me a little speechless, and when it comes to writing, I’m rarely speechless.

I was meeting with a writing friend to try out some new chapters of a piece I’ve been working on this summer. This writer has been in several of my writing classes (fiction basics, intermediate fiction, advanced fiction, novel workshop, and several reading-as-a-writer classes) and as we were talking about some recent films he’d seen and some books he’d read, he said, “I came away asking, so what? What was the point of that?”

Sure, there was a story: a beginning, middle and end; conflict and some semblance of resolution; somethings happened, in a sequence; there were characters and a setting and a plot. But, he was still left with the question: So what?

As we talked about WHAT some of those things might have actually been about, and what the writer/director might have been trying to get the reader/viewer to think about, I said, “So, what we are really talking about is theme. Not just what happened, but what is the piece ABOUT. The ability for the writer to convey that, at least on some level, can make a real difference in the lasting sense of satisfaction left after the book is closed or the theater lights come up.”

“So, theme is just as important as the other things: plot, character, setting. If the writer doesn’t really focus on it, on how it is presented, it can be a big problem.”

I think I said something along the lines of, “Well, yeas. Sure. Of course.”

Our stories are more than just what happened. We would do well to also ask, "So what is this really ABOUT?"
Our stories are more than just what happened. We would do well to also ask, “So what is this really ABOUT?”

The Bomb

That’s when he dropped the bomb that took away my words: “I don’t think you’ve really ever put it that way, in all the classes and critiques. I’ve always had the sense that theme sort of develops on its own, as you become better at all the other aspects of writing.”

I wanted to argue his point—my mind started re-constructing all the ways I try to emphasize the importance of theme and the development of theme in creative works.

But the truth was, it didn’t matter if I actually said all the things I thought I had said about theme: He hadn’t heard them in a way that allowed him to make the connection.

So What?

I think one reason this may happen in my creative writing classes is that I encourage writers, especially newer writers, to write the story that is of interest to them, while it interests them, and then explore the “why” later. Write what happens, then worry about what the story is actually about and use THAT information to guide re-writes and editing.

One reason I do this is because I think it can be debilitating to some writers to get too caught up, too early, in wrestling with the concept of theme. This is especially true in beginning fiction and legacy (non-fiction) classes where I think the goal of the class is to WRITE, and begin to understand basic concept of plot, character development, setting, and dialogue.

The other reason this lack of emphasis on theme may be present is that I teach from my own experience. In my own writing, I often don’t quite know the central theme (or themes) until after a draft is completed, and then I can step back and tinker with the particulars of the story in an effort to more-fully illuminate theme.

In coming weeks, I hope to spend a bit more time considering the “so what” in our creative work. Why do we create these things? What is it we are hoping to say?

Until then, let me know in the comments below if you have any theme-related questions or comments. I’d like to hear them…

Have I Short-changed THEME as an Element of Creative Writing?
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