Have you ever seen The Hurt Locker? It wasn't a big action shoot 'em up, there was no sweeping love story, and for a war movie it moved fairly slowly. But I think the reason it did so well is because it had a clear theme that every scene supported.
I’ve been struggling to understand concept and theme for a while. The words are thrown around a lot in craft books and workshops, and they’re fairly simple ideas, but for some reason I didn’t quite get it. Not really.
But somewhere between attending Suzanne Brockmann’s theme workshop at RWA Nationals last summer, watching The Hurt Locker, and reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, I think I finally got it. So here’s my understanding of theme and concept. Feel free to join the discussion with your own.
Concept is what happens in your book. It’s the story. It’s what you boil down to that one-line pitch called a log line. For my story Blind Fury, it’s something like:
A risk-averse programmer must rely on a thrill-seeking mercenary for protection when her quest for the truth about her brother’s death makes her a target.
That’s what my story is about in a nutshell.
But what about the theme? To me, the theme is what you’re trying to say with your story. It’s the point of the story. Maybe even an argument for or against something. It could be the moral of the story. And you might have more than one.
By the end of the book, what message(s) do you want the reader to get?
With Blind Fury, I really wanted to get across that “war is addictive”. I didn't realize it was my theme when I started, but that’s exactly what I wanted to say. And then I saw The Hurt Locker, which slams you upside the head with exactly that same message (even going so far as to use a quote to that effect at the beginning, just in case you didn’t get it). That’s when I realized I'd had a theme all along.
My book has other themes too. It’s a love story after all, so there has to be a theme there. Probably every romance has the overarching theme that “love will overcome” or something similar. If not, we wouldn’t have the HEA we promise.
So, what’s the point in understanding theme?
In my post called Get Passionate, I urged you to find something you feel strongly about and write about it. What I was really saying—but didn’t realize it at the time—is find a theme. Your story might explore both sides of an issue—and probably should to be most effective—but likely in the end, you’re going to choose a side for your character, and by doing so, you’re making a statement about that issue.
You can choose something as provocative as abortion, or as simple as an exploration of the consequences of dishonesty.
Jodi Picoult has made a career out of theme. As have Robin Cook and the late Michael Crichton.
In Toxin, Robin Cook tackles the beef industry, and he pulls no punches. He goes in with a clear agenda and deftly sells you on his point of view, but you don’t feel attacked because you’re reading a great book that lets you come to your own conclusions.
An important point, because we don’t want children’s fables where the whole book is an exercise in morality. Readers want to be entertained. But along the way, you’re saying something, whether you intend to or not.
I’m just thinking it would be better if you knew what it was.