I don't know any novelist who likes to talk about theme. Lord knows, I don't. Or at least, I didn't used to.
It's no surprise to anyone who's followed my ramblings here that I'm a huge fan of Blake Snyder's Save the Cat! books. One of the myriad of things STC! taught me is to listen for a movie's theme to be stated in plain terms, usually in the first ten minutes of the movie and usually it will be said to the movie's protagonist. Once I started listening for it, it was usually so easy to spot that I have to wonder if I was stupid or just deaf before.
Since nothing proves a point better than real-life (or in this case, real-movie) examples, I've listed some below. The first group are examples from STC! Goes to the Movies.
Parker says to Kane: "Anybody ever tell you that you look dead?"
Theme: What is it to be alive -- and human?
Anne to her daughter: "Ellen, I don't want you messing with my makeup. I told you a million times."
Theme: Trespassing into places we don't belong is the running theme.
What Women Want:
Alan Alda tells Mel: "If we don't evolve and think beyond our natural ability, we're gonna go down."
Theme: Change or die.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind:
Clementine to Jim: "I can't tell from one minute to the next what I'm going to like, but right now I'm glad you're here."
Theme: The battle between the Ideal and the Real.
Sleeping with the Enemy:
Julia's husband says to her (about her fear of water): "We can't conquer our fears by running away."
Theme: We can't conquer our fears by running away--yes, they can be said that clearly.
When Harry Met Sally:
Harry to Sally: "It is impossible for men and women to be friends."
Theme: As with Sleeping with the Enemy, this theme needs no interpretation because it's plainly stated. (Remember, the theme statement isn't necessarily true. It's what the story is going to prove or disprove.)
At dinner, Leo says: "Make each day count."
Theme: Another directly stated theme.
The Lion King:
Mustafa to Simba: "There's more to being king than getting your way all the time."
Theme: There's more to life than getting your way all the time.
Neo says: "Do you ever wonder if you're awake or dreaming?"
Theme: What is reality?
So why is knowing your theme important? As writers, knowing our theme helps keep us focused. It's easier to look at the story and find places where we missed opportunities to reinforce our theme. Knowing our theme allows us to strengthen our stories and to do so with confidence.
These are some of the movies I've watched recently (for the umpteenth time) where the theme statement jumped out at me.
P.S. I Love You:
Gerry to Holly: You can't keep waiting for your life to start.
Theme: Live each day.
On Golden Pond:
The theme is expressed so many times in this movie because of Norman's obsession with dying that it's difficult to pinpoint just one. If I had to choose one within the first 10 minutes (where the theme is usually found) it would be when Ethel says to Norman: "Your obsession with death is beginning to frazzle my good humor" but the place where I think it's stated most clearly is later when Ethel says to Chelsea, "Life marches by,Chels.I suggest you get on with it."
Theme: Life is short; grab on to it while you can.
Robby the creep says to Baby: "Some people count; some people don't."
Theme: Just what is says. True or not true: Some people count; some people don't.
Sweet Home Alabama:
10-year old Jake to 8-year-old Melanie: "Lightning never strikes the same place twice."
Theme: Can a broken relationship be resurrected?
The Wedding Date:
Said twice. First from Kat quoting Nick's statement in a magazine article, then from Kat's dad on her sister's wedding day: "Every woman has exactly the love life she wants."
Theme: Does every woman have exactly the love life she wants?
So it turns out that theme isn't as scary or as obscure as we think it is. Neither is it as generic as some writing books seem to want it to be. (Love conquers all? Really?)
Can you put the theme from something you've written into the mouth of one of your characters? What would that character say?