Many years ago when I was a student at RMIT University, my short story class received an impromptu invitation to join another class so that we could hear their guest speaker. We had no idea who the guest speaker was but dutifully made our way along the corridor to the next classroom.
When we turned into the room, it was already crowded with students sitting on chairs, desks, and any other available space. We squeezed into the room and found space where we could, mostly standing around the walls. Then the guest speaker arrived and to our great surprise it the award-winning Australian author Garry Disher.
Garry Disher has published around 50 books including literary novels, crime thrillers, story collections, and fiction for children and teenagers. Needless to say, hearing Garry speak was a treat and he offered us some great advice regarding theme. Now, I have no idea if Garry Disher learned his idea about theme from another wise person, or if the idea is all his own. It doesn't really matter. The point is, he gave us some great advice that day and now I am happy to share it with you. It doesn't really matter. The point is, he gave us some great advice that day and now I am happy to share it with you.
So exactly what is theme? In a nut shell, it's the story's main idea. Now, it's important not to confuse theme with subject. Theme and subject are two different things. Subject is the framework you give to your theme, the story in which your theme will be explored. For example, a writer may choose the subject of slavery and the theme will reflect the writer's personal feelings/opinion/experience of slavery.
So, what was Garry's advice to us that day? Well, specifically it was that there are, in fact, only four themes in storytelling. What? you cry. Only four themes! How can that be? It's impossible!
Well, actually it's not. When we think about theme in terms of storytelling, we think of things like love, hate, jealousy, revenge, beauty, change, courage, deception, justice, survival, circle of life, fate versus free will, etc. The list is endless. However, these things are really emotions, actions, symbols, and motifs that play out beneath the umbrella of one of the four actual themes.
So, what are the four main themes? Glad you asked. According to Garry Disher's advice (and I believe him!), the four main themes in storytelling are:
~ pride before a fall
~ loss of innocence (getting of wisdom)
~ power corrupts
~ the unattainability of desires
All of your stories will have one of these themes as its over-arching theme. Some of your stories will touch on two of them, or possibly even three. Every story that has ever been written has one of these as an over-arching theme. Let me give you an example...
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare:
SUBJECT: young lovers cannot be together because of their families ongoing feud.
THEME: there are two over-arching themes: the unattainability of desires (Romeo and Juliet cannot be together because their families are enemies), pride before a fall (both families lose their children to suicide as a direct result of their pride).
EMOTIONS (expressed beneath the umbrella of these themes) include: love, passion, hate, pride, longing, anger, confusion.
ACTIONS (that play out beneath the umbrella of these themes) include: courtship, deception, marriage, revenge, murder, suicide.
SYMBOLS include: religion.
What about Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte:
SUBJECT: a young woman cannot bring herself to marry the man she truly loves because he is from a lower societal class.
THEME: there are two over-arching themes: pride before a fall and the unattainability of desires (Both Catherine and Heathcliff's pride causes them to lose or destroy everything they desire and everyone they love).
EMOTIONS (expressed beneath the umbrella of this theme) include: love, passion, desire, jealousy, anger, hatred, pride, corruption.
ACTIONS (that play out beneath the umbrella of these themes) include: corruption, cruelty (mental and physical), revenge, birth, death, marriage.
SYMBOLS include: the moors, lineage.
It might take you a while to actually figure out what your story's theme is, and often the same theme will appear in your stories over and over again. For example, my main theme tends to be 'the unattainability of desires'. This theme often proves challenging as it has the potential to make your characters, primarily your protagonist, a bit whiny and no one likes whiny characters.
Now, you may agree with this. You may disagree. One of the greatest things about the art and craft of storytelling is that there is not absolute rights and there are no absolute wrongs. And there are dozens of websites dedicated to the discussion of theme and what it is and isn't.
If you have another understand of theme, or another tip or trick to help us identify or solidify theme in our work, please, by all means share! You can never have too many arrows in the quiver.
Hope this helps and happy writing!