Sunday, June 7, 2009


An on line colleague, Estelle Harte, has posed an excellent question: what is theme? I suggest you read her blog before continuing here, she has posed some very cogent questions concerning theme. (See link at right) But feel free to eat the ice cream cone starting from the bottom if you like.

The concept of theme is something I have trouble with too. My idea of telling a story is to, well, tell the story. Let other people worry about what your theme is. My contention is that most of us don't consciously know what our story theme is until after we've completed enough of it to have an idea where it is all going. I know I certainly don't. That revelation may come at the concept stage, or the outline, or not until much, if not all, of it is written. Or even when you do the dreaded synopsis.

I remember reading a story about an SF writer, I believe it was Robert Heinlein, who once attended a lecture about one of his books. After the presenter had finished Heinlein (or whoever it was) spoke to him and objected saying, "I'm the author, and that's not what I meant at all!"

To which the presenter replied, "What makes you think you know what your story is about?"

How's that for a shocker? Do we really know what our stories are about, or does everyone see something completely different? A complex story has many different threads, and, like Luke Skywalker in the cave, which one we think is important/compelling/interesting depends on who we are and what we bring with us.

We all know you can read a YA and get something completely different from it as an adult than the intended audience does. I may read a technothriller for the tech, you may read it for the thrill, someone else may read it for the political stuff or the ongoing romance between the protagonists. Which is the 'real' story.

Recently at GLVWG (Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group) we had a local storyteller, Charles Kiernan, in for a talk about verbal storytelling and how it relates to writing. One of the interesting things he emphasized was, 'mutual creating.' (He had a better phrase, but I can't remember it.) The essence was that the audience, in our case the reader, enters into the story, and creates the scenes and actions in their imagination, and that too much detail (more for the written word, less for verbal storytelling) spoils the process and also spoils the story.

Well the obvious conclusion is that everyone is creating their own story as they read.

And that means they're creating their own theme too!


I think I've come full circle.

Leave a message at the beep.


  1. I think you're right on with this, Bart. I've gotten some feedback from several other writers (some published, some not) and many of them indicated they don't really worry about it, at least not until they're finished or almost finished with the story. Some of them said they go back during revisions and layer in more theme related material. I suppose it really is a personal process and a writer just has to find what works for him or her. :)

  2. Nice post, Bart. There's a whole theory out there about how readers create meaning out of a story that goes beyond what the author intended (metatext). You and Estelle have got me thinking this would make a good blog post topic! :)

  3. Great post Bart. I think if you worry too much about theme while you're writing you might come off as sounding preachy. Just write the book.

  4. Wonderful post, Bart. I completely agree that each reader makes their own meaning. And it should be that way. I'm thinking of all the books I've read and which impacted me profoundly. I would hate to think that the writers of those books could sweep away that magic for me if they insisted that I'd misinterpreted their intention.

    As long as a writer was satisfied with the meaning they created for themselves in their words, I believe that's as satisfying as it can get. Everyone can finish happy.