Fiction Writing Basics: Theme

Theme by the Purdue Owl Online Writing LAB

Theme

If character is the most important aspect of fiction, then theme is the ‘meaning’ of a story. The ‘meaning’ of a story shouldn’t be mistaken with topic, however. What the writer makes of the topic constitutes theme

Some literary critics have claimed that theme is a lost art in contemporary American fiction because we are not likely to ask of a story, ‘What does it add up to?’ We are more likely to make sure the cause-and-effect points are rational and make sense. We appreciate meaningful moments of insight in a story, but sometimes balk at asking big questions. Such questions are considered old-fashioned, and the out-dated qualities of closure and epiphany have diminished the importance of theme.

Yet readers usually search for answers and meaning in literature, and perhaps this is one reason why readers have lost interest in contemporary American short fiction. Unless this quandary is dealt with, classroom prompted stories may fail to be memorable. Theme makes a story memorable. Part of the reason that theme is not discussed very much in writing workshops is that the primary problem with many stories is lack of coherence. For example, it’s difficult for the story to succeed if the character or the plot is not credible, so the workshop is devoted to fixing the problem.

While these problems do need to be fixed, fixing the problems doesn’t make for a memorable reading experience. Theme often depends on a vision of life that the writer starts out with before she begins the story. Therefore, theme may be beyond the realm of the creative writing workshop, since workshops are usually centered around beginning or intermediate level poets and writers who have not yet discovered their vision of life.

Still, great fiction depends on theme, and theme is sometimes a lost art. Jerome Stern’s suggestion, in Making Shapely Fiction, is an important reminder to all beginning and intermediate writers: ‘You can’t avoid meaning even if you want to.’

Conflict, Crisis, Resolution

Conflict and crisis are important to fiction because most readers find trouble interesting. If characters are best friends who always get along or have no age and personality difference, readers might not find them compelling. If characters do not have internal or external conflict to meet, deal with, and overcome (or fail to overcome), then readers may find the story uninteresting.

In addition, conflict can be an effective device for driving plot. In traditional patterns of fiction, readers are introduced to characters and then something occurs that challenges the main character(s) (protagonist). This complication is usually some sort of conflict or crisis the characters must face, deal with, and/or overcome. The conflict can be internal: a character’s battle with her depression. Or the problem can be external: the protagonist dealing with her enemy, the antagonist. Or the conflict can encompass both internal and external elements: the protagonist must first deal with her depression in order to overcome the conflict with the antagonist.

In order to overcome the crisis, the protagonist must make some sort of important decision or take some kind of action; this is called the penultimate part of the plot. The protagonist’s decision to deal with the crisis then leads to the climax of the story, which shows the reader the results of the protagonist’s choice.

Following the climax, the crisis is usually resolved (this part of the plot is called the denouement), and then the story concludes. During the conclusion, readers learn how the protagonist has changed (grown, learned, remained the same, become more evil, etc.) as a result of the crisis.

Point of View

Point of view refers to the perspective the author uses to tell the story. Though authors may switch and combine points of view, in traditional fiction there exists three points of view:

Third Person: In third person, the author tells the story. But the author decides if the events will be objectively given, or if she can go into the mind of every character; to what degree she can interpret that character; to what degree she can know the past and the future; and how many authorial judgments will be allowed. For example, Chekhov uses Third person limited omniscient in his story, ‘Vanka’ Chekhov tells us when Vanka is thinking, but he doesn’t go into detail about what Vanka is thinking about. Chekhov lets the action show what Vanka is thinking about.

If Chekhov had written the story in third person omniscient, then we would know everything that was on Vanka’s mind, and we would be given a great deal of interpretation about why Vanka acts the way he acts. If Chekhov had chosen to write ‘Vanka’ in Third person objective, we would only get those details that could be outwardly observed. Vanka would not pause to think twice about how he should begin his letter to his grandfather. We might see him lift his pen, and then start writing again, but nothing more.

Second Person: Second person is unusual in fiction and is more common in poetry. In second person, the character is not referred to as he or she, or by name, but rather as ‘you.’ If Chekhov had written ‘Vanka’ in second person, it would begin like this: ‘You, a boy of nine, who had been for three months apprenticed to Alyahin the shoemaker, were sitting up on Christmas Eve.’

First Person: Authors use first person when a narrator who is also a character in the story speaks. Baldwin’s story, ‘Sonny’s Blues,’ is written in first person, and begins: read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. The narrator who speaks is Sonny’s older brother, and he is also the main character in the story.

Suggested Reading

  • Charles Baxter. Burning Down the House: Essays on Fiction. Graywolf Press, 1997.
  • Janet Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. HarperCollins, 1994.
  • Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1959.
  • Rust Hills. Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Mariner Books, 2000.
  • Heather Sellers. The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students. Bedford/St. Martins, 2008.
  • David Starkey. Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief. Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.
  • Jerome Stern. Making Shapely Fiction. W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.