Originally published in the Greenhouse on the Wild Rose Press website
Writing Mechanics: Theme By Megan Kerans
Theme when used to its full advantage can be a powerful ally for writers and their stories, especially in a genre that has to fight for respect. As romance writers we often take a lot of grief and endure our work being called "silly, frivolous, and at worst meaningless." But, we aren't the only ones to endure these obstacles, just ask Walt Disney.
When Walt began on his first full-length, feature animation film, Snow White, in the late 1930's, the public viewed cartoons with the same descriptors I used above. As we all know, Walt changed people's opinions. One of the biggest keys to his success was incorporating strong themes into his stories.
What does Theme do?
Theme gives you three key elements
1. A base
2. Emotion for the characters & readers
3. Enriches the whole
Many times plot is described as the frame or skeleton of story on top of which you add characters, goals, setting, and all the other necessary elements. If that's true, then theme is the DNA running through the bones and wood.
Whatever your theme, that universal truth comes out in your narrative. That belief shapes how you tell your story and what receives emphasis. Take Disney's Beauty and The Beast and its theme, "don't judge a book by its cover". The animators used multiple scenes to show The Beast as kind and generous, such as him feeding small birds and giving his library to Belle. And on the opposite side, we see the handsome villain Gaston being a jerk and plotting to have Belle's father committed as insane. If the story's theme had been about a young girl's search for adventure or a better life, those scenes wouldn't belong in the final film.
The same way theme guides what scenes go in a story, it also guides what roles characters play. Still looking at Beauty and the Beast and "don't judge a book by its cover", theme guides and shows the differences in your characters. The Beast is ugly on the outside, but a good person on the inside. Gaston is handsome outside, but an ugly person inside. Imagine trying to tell the same story with a cover model-looking hero?
Emotion for the characters & readers
Walt Disney said, "If I can't find a theme, I can't make a film anyone else will feel." He was right. That universal truth creates an emotional connection with your reader, the same way your characters do.
This is where the "universal" part of theme comes in. When readers can relate, they dip into and attach their own emotions. Emotion creates an attachment to not only the idea, but the characters. When the Beast is shunned for his appearance, the viewers feel his pain. They connect to him as well as the idea of not judging by looks alone.
Likewise, how a character feels about the theme, which relates to their goal, taps into their emotions and influences their actions.
Enriches the whole
Walt Disney had another belief. "Theme is a key creation of stories that endure forever, and characters that take up permanent residence in lives of filmgoers around the world." Considering fifty years or have passed since the original creation of many of Walt's fairytales and they are still as beloved today as then, he was on to something.
While characters have an external goal-to get the gold, a new job, or save the Earth-it's the lesson they learn that makes a story richer. We remember the lesson because it drew our caring. Suddenly, the tale goes from "silly" such as finding gold to something much more important.
The lack of this enrichment or important lesson by the character is most often times the reason sequels don't do well or work. The story is too focused on the external.
Imagine Beauty and The Beast if at the end of the story the only change was that the Beast became human?
What kinds of Theme are there?
Duty (filial piety)
True love conquers all (Sleeping Beauty)
Let your conscience be your guide (Pinocchio)
Don't judge a book by its cover (Beauty & The Beast)
These are just a few possible themes. There are many more.
Reprinted with permission from http://www.rosescoloredglasses.com/