Edit; I was recently rewatching John and Hank Green‘s Crash Course videos, because they are excellent so why not watch them thirty-seven-ish times? When I came to John Green’s intro to the literature series I realized what he says overlaps a lot with what I’ve written about, and that he probably directly inspired a lot of my current thoughts. I don’t think I’ve plagiarized him, but I do think his influence was extensive enough that I really should credit him, and also encourage everyone to go watch a lot of his videos. Really I should do that last one anyways, because he and Hank are brilliant people who deserve to be watched all the time by everyone. That is all.
As a lifelong aspiring writer, I have read a lot of books on writing. It is very common for them to break the elements of storytelling into plot, character, setting and theme, and then discuss the role that each one plays. Some stories focus more on one over the others, and there are ways to stretch the boundaries of each one into something very unconventional, but all good stories have elements of all four. The way the four interact is ultimately what makes a story good.
There is no shortage of advice on how to make plot, character and setting good. Writers and literary critics have cut well into the core of each of them and what makes them tick, what remains the same about each of them no matter how much they are played with, and so on. Advice on theme, on the other hand, tends to feel more like sidebars. Most of the advice boils down to either “don’t set out with a theme in mind; let it arise naturally from the plot” or “be super wary of Unfortunate Implications.” Robert McKee’s Story takes a stab at diagramming out values of a scene, but I have found his system very clunky and unhelpful both in writing and analyzing other people’s stories. I do not accept that there is no way to explain how to write themes well. It has become a particular puzzle that I pick away at, make some progress on (or think I have), then put away to chip at more another day. I hope to go on picking at it for a long time.
Here is a piece of the answer, or so I think; theme is the only part of story that is collaborative. If a writer says that a particular character has a long thick mustache and a bad habit of picking his nails, which he adopted specifically to annoy his mother, then he’s a mustached nail picker with mommy issues. If a writer says that the train was delayed by rail work which caused the protagonist to miss the deadline to leave the ransom money, then that is exactly what happened. If the villain meets the hero in a forest of oak trees, then the setting for that scene is a forest of oak trees. If, on the other hand, the writer says that the love interest was captured by the anti-hero and tortured by him until her goodness overcame his cold heart and they embarked on a passionate love, some readers will inevitably cry, “Stockholm Syndrome!” and while their claim can be disputed, it can’t just be disputed on the grounds of “the author said it was a loving and totally non-abusive relationship.” Readers instead compare what is portrayed in the story with what Stockholm Syndrome is in the real world, and consensus rests on how well the two correlate, not on the word of the author.
This is where I get into sticky, disputed territory myself. There are schools of literary criticism that focus entirely on deducing what the author intended, and the Death of the Author school, which argues that the author’s opinion of their own work is one hundred percent irrelevant. I fall somewhere between the two schools of thought. What the author intended is an interesting start, but the reader’s reactions are equally relevant. Mark Twain clearly intended Huckleberry Finn as a criticism of slavery; there is both textual and extra-textual support for that. That does not mean that black readers who are uncomfortable with aspects of the book (or non-black readers, for that matter) are invalid in their views. It does not mean that readers can not find other themes in the work, and they are not limited by what he intended, consciously or unconsciously. The theme of Huckleberry Finn rests in the interaction between the text and the readers.
The authors’ themes are their chance to chime in on a dialog that transcends not only themselves, but their own time periods. Human culture, and its evolution, is an ongoing discussion of the big questions; what is love, what is justice, how do we find satisfaction, what should we value, and so on. A book is a question, or essay or diatribe or mere quip, that that the author throws into the discussion, and everyone who reads it gets to put in their own response. Those responses might take the form of a brief comment made to a friend, an Amazon review, a fifth grade homework essay, a professional thesis, or their own book, among it.
Themes are good when they provide something of great value to the big, ongoing discussion. They can do this in a number of ways; providing a new idea, reviving an old one, reconciling two ideas that seemed equally true but irreconcilable, asking a new question, or just doing a great job expressing what many people are already thinking. There can be many themes to a book, or just one (books with just one theme tend to feel didactic, and have less staying power than those with many, but that’s not always the case).
This could be used to argue that theme is something that can not be talked about objectively; not in the way plot holes can. Every reader will have a different reaction to the same book, so if theme lies in the interaction between the reader and the book, every instance of reading creates a new theme. People can not talk about “the theme of Huckleberry Finn,” they can only talk about their own personal theme of Huckleberry Finn. I think that’s true, but I think there is still room for objective criticism of a story’s theme. There is still much that unites humans as a species, even across cultures, so the thoughts that one story can spur in one person can be similar to the ones they spur in another person. Some stories consistently capture people’s imaginations, or move large numbers of people to do the same thing. Conversely, if two people get a different impression of the same story, they can still have a conversation where one convinces the other that their impression is the one best supported.
Here I have to stop, not just because the post has gotten long, but because I have hit the limits of my thoughts. I am only putting into writing what has made sense to me so far, so it can become a solid platform for me to push off into new ideas. For me, that’s what all writing is about, ultimately. Please share your own thoughts, ideas, and especially your reasons for thinking I am totally and completely wrong.