A Theme for the Holidays

Dear Writers,
Maxeen age 25

My Mom, Maxine Henning Erdoiza, 1920-1998

I learned to read in part from reading all of the jokes in Reader’s Digest magazines my mom used to hoard. To this day, I’m not sure why she kept every copy she got of that magazine, but stacks of them lived in the cupboards of a little trailor that sat behind our house, and I spent many hours out there reading. Eventually, I graduated from jokes to stories, and I can tell you that the very first short story I read was an excerpt based on true events: Buddy, The First Seeing Eye Dog written by Buddy’s human companion Morris Frank. For me, it’s the best story ever written, because it had a dog in it and it also made me fall in love with stories. When I was about eight years old, my mom bought me a book that was a collection of stories published in Reader’s Digest. Thanks again, Mom, and I should send the editors a Christmas card.

So, have you seen the latest film version of Les Misérables that opened on Christmas Day? No worries if you haven’t: here’s a summary I will never forget from Reader’s Digest magazine:

Jean Valjean, no evildoer / Stole some fruit cause he was poor / A detective chased him through a sewer. The End.

I read that little summary before I read the actual story, and I was delighted to discover that there was indeed a bit more to the story. I love that this marvelous story exists in so many mediums, a testament to how great stories endure. But pretty please, read the actual book by Victor Hugo if you haven’t. It is so amazing and ripe with theme—a good study for any writer wrestling with that craft element.

As soon as we’re old enough to understand stories, we learn themes. Don’t cry wolf. Slow and steady wins the race. There’s no place like home.

Theme is challenging to write in story without it seeming clunky or overdone. That is, it’s easy to eat cake, but a little tougher to bake one and make it come out right. Theme within story, when well accomplished, is meaningful and engages readers.

Whereas theme unsupported by story can seem to lack depth and often fails to earn its own meaning. For example, one could say that a central theme of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is The Wages of Sin are Death. Well, woohoo! That’s it, you don’t need to bother with the book now that you know the theme. Go get yourself a latte, because you’ve had your literary fill for the day.

To me, theme and story are intricately woven. From children’s fables to parables, to stories full of complexity and meaning, one thing holds true as relates to theme: We want to be entertained along with our dose of theme.

For writers, your job is to discover 1) themes as they develop naturally from your story, from your sensibility as a writer, and 2) to discover the story that may hold the theme you wish to convey.

The great news is that you can start with the story or you can start with the theme—the joining of the two is the success of both.

From a craft standpoint, you can think of theme in two general ways: 1) as discrete: theme as repeated images that allow readers to intuit meaning; 2) over-arching: theme as a view about life and how people behave.

So just where do you find themes? You steal from your own story, of course! You look to the characters, the story world, the plot—all of the elements of your story can work to build theme.

The Victorian writer Thomas Hardy was a master of theme in story. (I still owe a big thanks to my high school English teacher Dr. Thomas Mooney, who introduced me to Hardy’s works, and I think meeting his work at the age I was caused the material to always stick with me. So think about some of the first great books you read and what themes have stuck with you.) Most of Hardy’s stories were set in the semi-imaginary county of Wessex. Of course, we associate Stonehenge with Thomas Hardy.

He wrote stories about characters struggling against their passions and their circumstances: Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd, Jude the Obscure, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Tess is perhaps considered his crowning achievement.

Hardy was big on nature. He utilized nature as a theme in practically every story he wrote—and he had fun with the very word. In his stories, characters who by nature were in sync with nature were mainly the good guys. Characters who by nature rebelled against nature were the bad guys. Characters who by nature were weak in nature and were overcome by the forces of nature, were the softies, weaklings. His characters had names like Robin and Gabriel Oak.

Plus, his stories had lots of nature in them—country and weather and water and images of characters interacting with nature were woven through his stories. His stories are beautifully described; you do not feel the themes forced upon you, because they are so consistent with setting and story. However, by the middle of a novel, the reader is slowly drawn in to the simple, occasional repetition of images of nature associated with what happens to characters, whether they are acting for or against nature and their own natures—and nature itself on some level becomes a character. The famous ending of Tess, where the character meets her fate, is set in a nature that is slightly unnatural—as is her last act in the story. Just amazing. No, I am not going to tell you and neither do I have a Reader’s Digest ditty to insert here. If you are in pain because you haven’t cracked open the pages of Tess, you will just have to do it.

Look in your stories for accidental themes. Time always seems to be useful to the writer. Are characters in your story concerned with time? Perhaps someone glances at a clock somewhere in the story—there’s a subtle character action on the page that gently reintroduced throughout the story can become a theme that carries meaning. Does someone run out of time? Is someone undone by time? You may have a discrete theme of time in your story that married with plot and character enhances the effect of the story.

Are you starting with a theme? This gets trickier, because you have to find a story that can sustain the theme without subverting the story to the theme. The story has to be large enough to contain the theme. Think Anna Karenina—big theme, big story. There’s a lot more going on in the story than one condensed theme. You could appreciate the story and enjoy the story without even realizing the theme.

John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath from 1939 is an example of a story that, to me, began with a theme. Steinbeck lived during the Great Depression; he saw what ravages were done to the working class. He was a writer who was a social commentator; he wrote Grapes of Wrath as a social commentary in favor of the working class.

Grapes of Wrath is successful because it doesn’t preach. It tells the story of many people via the experience of a single family. Steinbeck universalizes the experience to invite the reader to understand his message. One social theme of the Grapes of Wrath is that the government acted poorly. Another theme is one of appearances vs. reality—fine people are misjudged by their appearance and their poverty.

A lesson we take from Steinbeck is how to convey central theme via story. This is all story, very multidimensional on the page. And yet, the thread of the theme runs through every page in the book. It’s a cry for the working class—that what happened to them was grossly wrong. His theme, his message is effective, because he tells it through a vivid, engaging, fully drawn story.

So get to work, dear people!

  • As always, send me your writing-related event notices so I can help spread the word! Pretty please, tell someone else about this blog.
  • Read more from me at Dogpatch Writers Collective.

Happy holidays and to all a good write.

xo Laurel Leigh

3 thoughts on “A Theme for the Holidays

  1. You know, my parents had a zillion Readers Digest condensed books. I remember them all being in the basement, but I can’t tell you specifically which ones I read, although I’m now thinking that one was Jane Eyre. But that’s all I can conjure.

    I don’t think of theme much while I’m writing. I’m just too far into the weeds. I like having the critique group identify common elements in my writing, and then I can step back and hum to myself and figure out what the story is really all about. I just don’t like planning to insert certain themes, especially during the first draft. It seems too forced.

    The NYT Book Review’s cover story a week or two ago was about the death of religion in literature, because religion doesn’t seem to figure very prominently in postmodern stories the way it did for folks like Flannery O’Connor. Where would Milton be without God? LOL Do we have contemporary writers spinning tales where religion is a major thematic element? Has the NYT just not looked far enough? Are there writers out there struggling mightily with their gods?

    What do you think? Sorry if I’ve gone down an overgorwn path….

    • I don’t think you–specifically you–get to say that you ignore theme as you write. I’ve seen enough of your work to think that you are intuitively alert to theme even if it’s less conscious on your part. I can’t think of a story of yours that I’ve read that hasn’t explored ideas and imagery beyond the surface level. Yes, I agree that it’s awkward to have theme overly in mind as you initially draft, but I think the good writers, like you, do it whether they intend to or not. About religion? Wellll, trying to think of writers I follow who grapple with their gods. The Irish writer Catherine Brady comes to mind, as does Frank McCourt, although his books aren’t as recent. Thanks for thinking about this and commenting! Now back to work on that story that doesn’t have a theme but really does…

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