June 2


Why Themes?

By Tracey Arial

June 2, 2013

Using themes to organize writing is an old idea, but as our world gets more complex, they are even more important now than ever before.


The word themes might be confusing to bloggers because it often refers to a type of software application that indicates how a blog will look on various screens. This blog, for instance, uses the Suffusion Theme, which I’ll be describing in more detail on Wednesday. That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I’m arguing for the definition of theme as narrative structure.

Themes are gifts to readers

Themes are intellectual links that carry readers forward through natural curiosity. They are a writer’s gift to readers. They answer the question: “why do I want to keep reading this story?”

Sometimes a reader keeps reading for curiosity’s sake. Sometimes, it’s emotion, beauty or intellectual challenge.

Often, the type of story determines its theme. In detective stories, the search for a perpetrator keeps readers captivated. In dramas, the action encourages us to feel as though we are living though a character’s most exciting times with none of the mediocrity or questioning of everyday life. In a love story, the relationship’s ups and downs keep us guessing whether love conquers all.

Too often these days, however, writers follow their preset themes to organize ideas too rigidly without allowing imagination or wit to lead readers astray. Too-tight editing can destroy rhythm, spoil a voice and inhibit surprise. Sometimes, a story needs a slight circuitous route, where the meanderings of the author allow us to see more themes than initially intended.

Steinbeck’s meanderings open up more themes

John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” for example, contains many themes, including the increasing urbanization of the United States, destruction of the natural world, the need for adventure as one ages, or the comfortable friendship of a long-standing marriage. It’s also simply funny. The classic work about a man and his poodle crossing the United States has an easy-reading flow that makes it as compelling a read in 2013 as it was 53 years ago. Some authors have even attempted to duplicate the work using the mistakes Steinbeck made as a narrative theme, including Bill Steigerwald, the author of Dogging Steinbeck  (http://truthaboutcharley.com/). Even though Steinbeck’s novel has spawned a modern controversy about whether it is fiction or non-fiction, it remains a beloved work of art.

Reclaim the traditional notion of theme

The giving nature of a really good theme is best described by John Dryden in his 1681 poetic satire, Absalom and Achitophel. Dryden, who was then the Poet Laureate of the Kingdom of England, wrote:

The people’s prayer, the glad diviner’s theme,
The young men’s vision, and the old men’s dream! (I.238)

This quote is a perfect example of how a writer can use themes well. Some readers get a clear view of a concept; others retreat into their own imaginations. A good theme does both. Meanderings within a theme can do even more.

The lessons for modern bloggers (#blog2013) is clear. Instead of using themes to organize your work, consider thinking about themes as gifts to readers. Reclaim the traditional notion of ‘theme.’


Tracey Arial

About the author

Tracey Arial helps Canadians create meaningful lives with true stories about ancestors, businesses, communities and ecology.

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