Theme in Fiction

An Essay in Response to a Discussion Group Question

by Jason K. Chapman

Q: When I've tried my hand at fiction, I've always failed for one of two reasons: if I start from a great "hook" and try to let the characters show me the way to a believable ending, I run out of steam and the piece gets abandoned; if I create the ending and try to work backwards, I end up with the literary equivalent of Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs..." ...only less coherent...

This seems to be a fairly common problem. I wonder if it stems from not starting with a consistent theme in mind. In everything I write, I begin with an idea, a thought to express. It acts as the glue that bonds character, plot, and voice together into some kind of organized whole.

It works on a level above the individual elements, and affects details even as small as word choice in descriptive scenes.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not necessarily talking about moralizing, here, though the difference may be small. I'm simply talking about a single idea--a one-sentence answer to the question "What am I trying to say, here?"

Since I used Les Miserables earlier, I'll use it again. It's theme might be summed up as "Dignity is a requirement for human life." This unifies the actions, and the fates, of Valjean, Javert, Fontine, and Cosette.

Valjean changes his life when he realizes that the priest has treated him with dignity in spite of Valjean's stealing from him. Javert, whose every action is bent on destroying human dignity, goes so far in his aim that he destroys his own, and himself. Fontine gives up on the very idea of dignity, by sacrificing her own in a failed attempt to win it for Cosette.

It is this kind of coherence that helps bring me back on track when I lose sight of where the story's going. Those of you who start with a good hook and characters, but can't find your way to the end might want to try it. Once you have the story's theme, you can combine it with who the characters are and what the setting is. At that point, the ending of the story becomes much clearer.

--Jason K. Chapman

(Originally appeared in alt.skunks 9/98)