Theme is why fiction matters, because it is the quality that gives the story a universal appeal. Some say theme is what the story is about, but that is too ephemeral a definition, which may get confused with the idea or the plot.
Theme enriches and inspires the reader while saying something profound about the human condition. Theme is the abstract concept behind the story forming the story’s heart and soul that the exposition, dialogue, and action reflect every chance they get.
Theme is not the characters or the plot or the original idea that started the story. For example, a writer may begin with the idea of exploring family relationships between women, but as his story progresses, his theme may shape up as forgiveness and understanding between different generations of females.
Theme is implied, sometimes without the writer’s knowing of it at the start; however, more experienced writers usually work on their theme harder than any other part of the story once they catch on to what it is they are writing about.
In non-fiction, the writer is advised to hone in to his theme and begin referring to it right at the first paragraph. In fiction, on the other hand, the theme usually blossoms through the writing as the story progresses.
An experienced and capable author never pronounces what his theme is about inside his story. For a story to be successful, its theme needs to stay invisible but hinted at with subtlety through other devices of fiction.
Theme is most visible in the protagonist’s greatest choice in a story. The easiest way to pinpoint a theme is to put it in question form. Here the question to ask is: what is the protagonist’s biggest emotional decision to resolve the story’s conflict?
For example, if we take Charles Dickens’s “A Tale of Two Cities” the main identifying theme may take the form of this question: Can one sacrifice his life for the one he loves? In the same story, many smaller themes are interwoven as well, like life and death, resurrection, revolution, justice and revenge, war and peace, and power or abuse of power, since many works of fiction carry several supporting themes that wrap around the main theme.
If the theme envelopes an emotion, its power becomes universal. When the writer creates and dramatizes his theme through an emotion, his expression of the truth leaves an unforgettable impact on the reader. Thus an ambitious writer may choose an emotion as the major part of his theme.
Another common technique is hinting at the theme in the dialogue, but the risk here is in becoming too obvious. Although this may be done successfully by an experienced author, the beginning writer should try to stay away from blurting the theme out through the dialogue.
A much used way to demonstrate a theme is through the actions of the protagonist and the antagonist, with the antagonist showing the dark side of the theme and the protagonist the positive side.
Communicating both sides of the argument equally, sometimes through both the antagonist and the protagonist, may define the theme with more impact. In Les Misérables, our softer side may stick with Jean Valjean, but we also see the righteousness in Inspector Javert.
One other way to emphasize the theme is through all the characters in a story, with each character representing an aspect of the theme, as in Godfather stories when the theme of power is presented with each character representing another facet of power.
Referring to the theme in recurring images, props, colors, settings, and situations may also be used in the presentation of the theme. The color red in the movie American Beauty gives an important tip-off in presenting the main theme of the story as it plays to the viewer’s emotions each time it is shown.
Even when the plot is about something out of the writer’s imagination that may not emotionally involve us, the story becomes unforgettable if the theme makes itself known. We may not care for Luke Skywalker’s intergalactic triumph as much as we care about good winning over evil. Theme is very important to the overall success of any piece of fiction. When handled deftly, it will become a faithful servant to any writer.