CREATIVE WRITING: ESTABLISHING A THEME
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Every piece of writing, no matter whether it is a novel or a business letter, should have a dominant theme or underlying idea. In a business letter and in technical writing, the theme should be immediately obvious and clear and should be stated. In a piece of creative writing it might be gradually revealed through the development of the work and may only be fully apprehended by the reader at the very end. Nevertheless, the theme should be present from the beginning, and should exist as a unifying thread through every chapter or paragraph. Every piece of the writing should, in some way, relate to that theme. It is what unifies a piece of writing and lets it stand alone as a meaningful expression.
The theme of a creative piece may never be directly stated. For instance, the underlying theme of Boris Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago is personal integrity, being true to one’s self in thought and action. This is never stated, but is exhibited in the behaviour of the main characters, each of whom draws upon hard-won inner truth for the strength and courage to maintain integrity in a vicious, chaotic, and seemingly unprincipled world.
In a novel, we often find that a theme branches out into several sub-themes. Because of its length, the novel allows for this kind of interweaving of themes and ideas. So, in Dr. Zhivago, there is plenty of room for developing a critique of the rise of Communism, of war and aggression in general, of different kinds of power, and of love. But these must and do return in some way to the dominant theme, to enrich our understanding and experience of that dominant idea.
In comparison, the short story or poem might focus entirely on one theme, though even then, there are usually subtle or even overt references to other ideas and themes, for no one idea or experience is self-sufficient, but inevitably relates to and rests on other ideas and experiences.
We can develop themes any means, and often through a variety of means, such as:
- thoughts and speech of characters
- actions of characters
- contrasting societies or generations within a society
- identifying shared values and experiences between groups or generations
- ways to dealing with and coping with the environment
- symbolic use of landscape and nature
- repetition of ideas in different forms
- repeated symbols or cultural items
- contrast of values
One way to plan your writing is to establish a central theme, then consider how to develop it, and how to display its complexity and facets through different sub-themes. Ask yourself, “What do I want to say?”, then ask yourself over and over, “What else do I have to say about that?” This constant meditation on a theme can yield a rich trove of ideas.
To understand how themes are developed, read several short stories and novels that you really like. Notice how the theme is introduced, and how it is developed. Also, do some exercises with free association. This process requires you to simply observe what thoughts, images, memories, people, events etc. come into your mind when you focus on an idea. For instance, let us say that you are thinking to write on the theme of personal responsibility. Rather than trying to consciously develop that theme at first, just jot down every image or word than comes into your head. Everybody will come up with a completely different and personal collection of items, for no two of us have lived the same life or experience it in the same way. The results of a free-association exercise like this can give you the seeds with which to ‘grow’ and express your theme.
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