Theme in Fiction Writing

Theme  is defined as a distinct, recurring, and unifying quality or idea.  Theme grounds the reader in a universal experience at an emotional level. According to James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure, Theme ” is the lesson or insight–the new way of seeing things–that you want the reader to glean” from your story.  

One of the fastest ways to understand theme is by watching movies. I will continue to use 50 First Dates to show how theme is applied and to help you understand how you can thread theme into your fiction writing.

In applying theme, first we must understand the story question. The H/h must prove the question true or false by the end. 

In 50 First Dates, Henry Roth (the hero) believes that commitment kills adventure, which kills happiness.

He’s learned from his past negative experiences that commitment equals rejection equals pain.

In turn, Henry becomes a Casanova (defined as a charming seducer of women who moves quickly from one relationship to another). By becoming a Casanova, he thwarts anyone from getting too close to his heart.

What Henry must learn by the end of the story is that commitment is an adventure and is the only way he’ll find happiness.

In writing, like movies, the very first scene of your book should give testament to the story theme.  In 50 First Dates, the first scene shows a cast of rejected women who have fallen for Henry.  The setting is in Hawaii, the sun is high in the sky, the surf is rolling across the sand, and Henry is pretending to be someone he is not in his lily covered Hawaiian shirt.

Use the following techniques to improve your writing:

  • Tone/Mood
  • Dialogue
  • Songs and Song Lyrics
  • Concepts/Images
  • Showing the action/reaction

Below I’ve listed specific examples used in 50 First Dates for Henry Roth’s. Over the course of the movie, theme will guide him into proving his story statement to be false

Lots of single women tourists
These events give him opportunity to be a Casanova.
Dialogue from Secondary Characters (in the form of foreshadowing change):
“One day you’re going to show a girl such a good time, you’ll be stuck here.”
“She’s the perfect girl, she doesn’t remember you. You can give her another day, then you can leave.”
“You’re going to love me so much, you’re never going to let me go.”
“I’m a sucker for Casanova Lilies.”
“Only sings when she sees you.”
“You’re the girl of my dreams, and I’m the man in yours.”
Songs (beat) and Song Lyrics
Upbeat Hawaiian music
Making Love
He Needs You
Just Another Day in Paradise
You’re Really Lucky Underneath it All
She Floats like a Swan on the Water
Sad Hawaiian music
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could wake up
Romantic melody
Deep in My Soul
Forgetful Lucy
Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older
Adventurous Hawaiian music
The Casanova Lily is shown in nearly every scene on shirts, paintings, her car door, in the garden, in a bouquet
A Lily is Symbolic of purity and innocence (like Lucy, the heroine)
Together Henry and Lucy make up the Casanova Lily
Many women/Henry escaping as someone else
He sees Lucy in a vision on the beach, he runs away.
Lucy confronts Henry about his fear of commitment, he runs away again. 
Rejecting an aggressive female tourist, Henry returns to Lucy.
Comparing his insensitive lifestyle as a Casanova and repulsion of his behavior versus Lucy’s purity and innocence helps him to reject his flaw.
He wants to commit even if he has to give up his adventure to get the girl.
By his actions, Henry proves his original story statement to be false.
Reworded: Only through commitment will he find adventure and happiness.
By infusing Tone/Mood, Dialogue, Sounds, Rhythm, Concepts/Images, and action into your works of fiction in each scene,  you to can create a strong story Theme.
Happy Writing, Cyndi Faria

6 thoughts on “Theme in Fiction Writing

    • Jill, “Theme” is a single word used to describe the “Tools available to the writer to show your H/h how their flaw is holding them back from achieving their goal.” Thanks for the comment! Cyndi

  1. Mmmmmm. Trying to get my brain around this one. 50 First Dates didn’t look like my kind of movie, so I’ve never seen it. But think I’ll rent it to get this concept embedded in the gray matter.
    Thanks, Cyndi,

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