The best themes in my view have a level of universality about them, in that they can be applied to more than one human story. If that is the case, we should be able to split off a theme from a commonly known story or event and use it in another story. I would do that where the event the theme is split from is so commonly known and current that I could not add anything to that story or event by writing about it now, but by using its theme in another story I could highlight the principle in a unique way.
Let’s take the Middle East conflict and try to extract a theme from that (I am sure there are many others which could also be extracted).
Basically what we have are two sides that have been unable to reach an agreement for over sixty years as to how to live together. I would say that results from a lack of trust between them.
Due to not being able to reach such an agreement, both sides end up carrying out atrocities against each other. I’ll call that inhumanity.
With that level of inhumanity, people’s lives are threatened individually, but also nation states are threatened, because if they have not reached a peace, there is always a threat to their survival.
To put this into a sentence as a theme, I would say: Unless we are able to trust, we begin to lose our humanity, and ultimately, this may threaten our survival.
Ok, let’s test how universal this is, as one of the things about a great theme is that I start to see how it applies to other events. We’ll stay in the Middle East and look at the Arab Spring.
Lack of Trust – The leaders of the countries in revolt did not trust their populations to be able to build their nations without them at the helm, so they refused to leave power.
Inhumanity – As the populations began to protest, the leaders began to use more atrocious methods to control them.
Threat to survival – The protestors’ lives are threatened; the lives of the leaders who refuse to go are threatened; and the survival of some of those nations as one entity is threatened.
Again, I wouldn’t write a story about the Arab Spring unless I had some new unusual insight to throw on it, so how can this theme be used?
How about using it in a story where a man and a boy travel across a post-apocalyptic land in search of other good people with whom they may make a community. Because of the threat from others, the man is unable to trust anyone they meet. As a result, he begins to lose his humanity by refusing to help those who are in a worse position than themselves. This reduces the chances of them finding those good people with whom to establish a community, and so threatens their survival, as they are unlikely to make it on their own. Recognize the story? I’ve wondered if Cormac McCarthy used such a process to come up with the theme for his Pulitzer prize winning The Road.
Can you apply this theme to another story?
Let me start with a simple example:
A man’s jealousy means that he is unable to trust his wife. He begins to stalk and abuse her (inhumanity). This behaviour threatens the survival of their family and possibly even lives.
In my guest post at TheCreativePenn, I discuss How to Illustrate the Theme of Your Novel once you have decided on your theme and story.
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