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by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

March 2008


"I have to slowly and carefully write the details, the scenes, and the dialogue . . ."




In this article on writing, you, the reader, expect me to tell you quickly and clearly everything that I mean to say or you won’t read on. But if I’m writing fiction, I have to do the opposite to draw you in and keep you reading. Instead of spelling everything out, I have to slowly and carefully write the details, the scenes, and the dialogue that shape the insights and conclusions I want you to gain from reading my story. I have to give you clues, hints, and resonances that take you beneath the facts of what is on the page to the essence, the theme.

To do this, I have to be very sure what my theme is or the story won’t hang together and won’t do anything to change the reader’s mind or heart. A theme gives the fundamental or universal ideas in a literary work. It’s really the author's point of view on how people should or shouldn’t act in the world. A theme can be major or minor. A minor theme appears a few times in a story. A major theme is returned to again and again. It’s the most important idea in the story. The subject of a work is what you’re writing about. The theme is what you think of that subject. The subject of the story might be love, for example, but the theme might be how love can be such a reckless force that it leads to death as in Romeo and Juliet or Fatal Attraction.

"Making your characters and actions just a mouthpiece for your theme is the death of fiction."



In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald covers the themes of justice, power, greed, betrayal, the American dream, and materialism. But his major theme is social class. Think of how he sets up the novel into distinct social groups—old money, new money, the have-nots. By doing this, Fitzgerald is able to send strong messages about every strata of society.

Making your characters and actions just a mouthpiece for your theme is the death of fiction.

The theme is the abstract concept of the work. Nabokov wrote advice to readers that would work just as well for writers. “…fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a ready made generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before he has begun to understand it.”

For James Joyce, a true artist could be a God but not a preacher.

"Take control of your theme, but don’t let it control you."




Caveat: Take control of your theme, but don’t let it control you.

Here are ways to express a theme. . . What the author makes the reader feel. By sharing the feelings of the main character, you let us know his thoughts and opinions. And all the other characters must face the same dilemma, but handle it in a different way. Think of A Christmas Carol which, along with other themes such as redemption, Dickens, like Fitzgerald, explores the gulf between the haves and have nots. Scrooge is miserable hoarding his wealth while Bob Crachit, his clerks, and his poor family are making the best of Christmas no matter what. The story wouldn’t work without contrast. Themes are expressed in thoughts and conversations. Major themes show up in thoughts repeated throughout the story. In Romeo and Juliet, for example, Friar Lawrence says that every plant, herb, and stone has its own special properties and nothing exists in nature that cannot be put to both good and bad uses. So poison is a natural substance made deadly in human hands. Poison is what leads to the star-crossed lovers’ suicide. But the deeper meaning, the theme, is that peoples’ good qualities such as the ability to love are turned to poison by the society in which they live. The main character usually illustrates the most important theme of the story. What he learns, his revelation, is the major theme. Every action or event of the story usually expresses the theme. You have to ask yourself what the action taken by the character will say or how will the character taking that action express the theme of the story?

"A theme does not have to be true."


A theme does not have to be true. Think of Cinderella where the good and the beautiful always win out. A theme doesn’t have to be high-minded. In The Sting, it’s okay to lie and cheat if it’s in the service of bringing down a bad guy. The theme may be that life is meaningless and communication is impossible as in the plays of Beckett.

What’s important is that, a reader may have to dig to ferret out your major theme, but you, the writer, must know it or your story will turn to mush.



Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium, was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is currently selling in Holland, Belgium, and the U.K. She’s published essays in NYT (Lives) and Newsweek-My Turn, and in many anthologies such as It’s a Boy (Seal Press, 2005), The Imperfect Mom (Broadway Books, 2006) About What Was Lost (Plume Books, 2007,) For Keeps, (Seal Press, 2007.) Her poetry, short stories, and essays have appeared in many literary magazines such as The Iowa Review, Negative Capability, Moment, and in many anthologies such as Father (Pocket Books, 2000). The short story from that collection, "The Wild Russian," will be reprinted for educational testing purposes nationwide. She currently teaches "Writing the Personal Essay" at UCLA on-line and is a book critic for Kirkus. She can be reached at http://www.miriamthemedium.com/ or at her blog: http://rochellejewelshapiro.blogspot.com/