Consideration of theme comes last in the writing process. I usually don’t think much about it for a long time even after I’ve finished writing a story. For the Perceval series, each book has a theme and then an overall theme threads through all five novels (at least that’s the plan). The theme of a story is what the story is about in the big picture or broader view. For example, the theme of The Great Gatsby is the corruption of the American dream. The theme of George Orwell’s 1984 is the possibility of the police state anyplace. I tend to not think about theme because if one starts a story with a specific theme in mind for it, the story can end up sounding preachy and become a “message” story. I want to entertain readers, not make them cringe and put down my story.
Recently, however, theme punched me in the nose. The short story I’d submitted in January was rejected, leaving me feeling adrift for several days. The Writer magazine threw me a lifeline, as it has many times in the past. In the March 2010 issue, “Theme is What Unifies Your Story” by Terry Bain grabbed me around the throat and shook me until I promised to apply its prescriptions to the short story that had been rejected.
To my huge surprise, as I reviewed the story, I learned that what I had thought the story was about, wasn’t what the story I’d submitted was about. I should have checked it for theme BEFORE I sent it out. The rejected story is about the protagonist’s prejudice against someone who doesn’t share her appearance. While this is a viable story theme — prejudice — it wasn’t what I had been aiming for. I had wanted the theme to be how imagination opens up the world for people and makes change possible (and sometimes painless). Elements of my desired theme threaded through the story but need to be brought out to the foreground, and the prejudice elements need to be either eliminated or pushed far into the background. I have my work cut out for me…..
The editor had been correct to reject the story. It pays to return to a rejected story with fresh eyes (and some help from The Writer) to find a way to make the story better. I enjoy the revision process — it’s like sculpting — and working the words, sentences and paragraphs into the powerful story that I want it to be. A writer’s work is never done…..