Elements of Storytelling: Theme, or "What Does it Mean?"
Ever been in a conversation where the person you were talking to looks at you with his eyelids all aflutter and his eyeballs rolling in his head, followed by the question, “What’s your point?”
Well, just like in that conversation, if your audience has the same reaction about your masterpiece then it’s usually an indication that something is wrong. And what is wrong is quite simple:
It didn’t mean jack.
That’s what theme is: what the story means. Not what it’s about (that’s the plot and other fun stuff), but what the whole overall purpose of why you just killed all those trees (or fried all those poor little electrons). And you better have a damn good reason for that mass murder; otherwise, Greenpeace and Save the Trees will be all over your ass.
Zap all the electrons you want, though. Nobody gives a crap about them.
Theme is arguably the most important element to a story. Yet, ironically, the more you sweat it the more likely you are to screw it up by getting too preachy. After all, fans only like a dash of sugar and cream in their otherwise pitch-black muck called life, er, uh, coffee. They tend to get testy when you add too much of the good stuff. It’s like supplying a crackhead with the crack he needs, except he’ll complain if you give him too much in addition to overdosing. The best way to handle theme is to simply not worry about what the story means until after your first draft. Let your subconscious guide that part, after all your Evil Twin knows best. It’ll be in the second draft and later edits that, to steal a line from the coolest character in Babylon 5, “The truth points to itself.” Try it; you might even surprise yourself during those rare moments when you discover that your subconscious disagrees with you.
Fortunately, for me, I’ve already delved into the whole concept of themes in a previous column titled Give it Meaning, thus saving my arthritic fingers from having to write half a dozen articles on that element alone. Don’t you just love the Internet?
Ah crap. That column is now a dead link. Don't you just hate the Internet?
Maybe the Internet is trying to tell me something....