Thematism: a new look at the writing process

The Fundamentals of Thematism:

Why themes are the natural foundations of literature

Kenneth Burchfiel

Ever since the early days of literature, the relationship between plot and theme has been a subject of debate. There are those who believe that a detailed, outlined plot is necessary for a book to succeed; others, perhaps the moderates in the debate, feel that both plot and theme are important components of writing. Almost everyone involved in such argument, however, admits to the importance and endurance of plot structure in modern literature.

With that in mind, I supposed the following could be coined the words of a radical. There is no way for me to duck this label; rather, I hope that those who will describe me as such might, at the very least, give my thoughts some consideration.

Thematism, to put it succinctly, is the idea that themes are the best bases for stories due to their natural existence as the pith of and inspiration for a written text; plots are merely the byproduct of the means to establish and convey a story’s message. Authors who employ Thematist strategies pay little attention to outlining, let alone think about what should occur in a given chapter or section. Rather, by basing themes at the center of what they write, they keep constant the overall message and meaning of a piece while leaving its narrative side open to revision.

In exploring this idea deeper, I would like to delve into two main points that served as the nebula for the Thematism idea. First, I will explain why plots are not good objects around which to build a story; second, I will explain why themes are the best candidate to take their place.

From a shallow perspective, pre-determined plots seem to be a great tool for fiction writing. Many of the literary epochs of the modern world have operated off a set outline, replete with narrative goals for every chapter. Consider this to be a disclaimer: plot has proven to be a successful structuring tool for some.

Under the shining surface of plot, however, lies a number of glaring insufficiencies, a host of setbacks that even the best plot-centered writers must deal with. Perhaps the foremost is the Inconvenient Truth that the best ideas one has for a plot develop during the process of writing, not beforehand. In the Thematist’s eye, all the benefits of outlining are outweighed by this very simple fact, and much of Thematism is inspired by it. One must recognize that, at the time of outlining, they know next to nothing about the potential of their piece. We structure and plan in the dark; only when we actually type out our work do we begin to see what path a book can, and should take. (A quick qualifies: I have nothing against the idea of plot; my criticism falls squarely on the tradition of building a story off a prefabricated plot.)

Secondly, we must ask ourselves if it makes sense to base a story off its plot in the first place. A central point of Thematists is that plots, by nature, are passive; they do not create nor determine, but are created and determined. In life, things do not merely happen; there is reason and motive, both of which determine just what event will occur. To write a story based on a chain of events is to construct an artificial reality in which things merely occur on the whim of the writer. Doing so may make a story more exciting or fun, per se, but it turns the writing experience into a chore, and the reading experience into a mere overview of a sequence. Enticing as it is to create that “perfect plot,” such an effort occurs at the wrong time—the beginning of the writing process—and out of a misconstrued perception of cause and effect.

There is one more bone to pick with the concept of a central, unifying plot structure. What happens when a writer has a new idea about a story’s course in the process of composing a book? Should they stick with their original plans, this newfound (and often superior) idea will go to waste. Plot-centered writing restricts creativity in the sense that its usage dulls the writing process into a mere elaboration on a pre-determined narrative structure. The creative mind has little, if any domain over a story governed by an outline. With this drawback in mind, writers often implement a less rigid form of plot structure; they may decide only to plan out the first few chapters, then let the book go where it may, or outline just a few sections in advance. Both of these methods improve upon a complete outline, but they only address the creative restriction involved in outlining. The other two problems with using plots as foundations—the lack of foresight outliners have and plot’s natural existence as an effect, not a cause—remain to be solved with either strategy.

And so, the source for a foundation continues. We are looking for a guiding, yet non-obtrusive element of literature from which a story can grow; a writers’ compass that tells the author in what direction to head, not where to go. We want something at the center of our story, but nothing that overshadows or controls it. As a Thematist, I believe that such a search ends with the concept of theme. No doubt this will take some explaining to do.

By theme, I mean a non-specific, fundamental facet of life—be it the need for companionship, the transitory nature of life or the joy of rebirth—that a story expresses and feeds off. Perhaps the best comparison can be drawn with colors. The sun, a banana and a canary are vastly different entities, yet they are all yellow. In the same sense, a theme can unite vastly different stories that use it as a foundation. Only when plots are generalized to the most basic structures can they accomplish the same.

Theme does not make for a superior foundation simply because it lets writers max out their creativity, or because it is more of a cause than an effect, or because it benefits a writer to know the theme beforehand. More than anything else, theme is the best thing on which to base a book because it exemplifies the very purpose of literature: the need to express a message, idea or truth through the means of a narrative. If one builds a story off a plot, they all but overlook the reason for writing the plot in the first place. If one starts with the theme and continues on, however, their book—and their very efforts to craft it—will have a purpose and message that even the best outline cannot deliver. The well-crafted plot reminds the author of what they are writing; the pre-determined theme reminds the author of what they are writing for, provides each and every sentence with a reason for existing that transcends their sum, gives the story a foundation that grounds and elevates it simultaneously.

Thematism does not demand that every piece of literature be a sappy, cliché-laced story about being oneself and doing the right thing. Thematism merely acknowledges that all literature, from the grotesque to the quaint, from the utilitarian to the ultra-progressive-new wave-post-postmodernist, exists to translate themes into written form. The theme of this article, for example, is the superiority of the theme over the plot in terms of a literary foundation. (Message would be a good synonym for the word, except far too many equate the term with children’s books or public service announcements.)

Theme makes for an excellent foundation for other reasons, of course. As long as the thematic side of a book remains constant, its narrative side (regarding plot, character development and structure) is free to change at the writers’ whim. The creative mind is allowed to roam, but also benefits from a sense of direction and purpose. Themes also allow the reader to identify with any piece of work, be it a documentary on Alaskan king crab fishing or a period piece in 17th century Japan.

Best of all, perhaps, their use as a foundation gives a story a sense of timelessness. Few of the “classics” survive because of their excellent plot or sheer entertainment as reading material; yesterday’s riveting thriller is tomorrow’s kindling because of the advances in form, style and presentation that occur today. Themes, however, have a perpetual element. Readers in the 21st century can enjoy and connect with a Mesopotamian tale about first love—not because of its cutting-edge storyline, but because of its timeless message. It takes only a classic theme to write a classic novel.

Thematism is not a revolution, nor an ultra-progressive idea that turns literature inside out. It’s a simple idea, grounded on a simple acknowledgment that writers throughout history have made: the message of a story is its foundation, and the story itself a means for translating that message into literary details. Hopefully, this essay has stretched for no greater conclusion.

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