What makes a book, film, poem, painting, or song a 'classic'? I'm talking about that intangible something that makes a work of art something that generation after generation goes back to. In my view, the answer lies in the endless interpretability of its theme, which is an aspect of writing craft often overlooked.
'So, what's it about then?'
We lovers of books with spine can't wait to tell someone else about what we're reading. In a nutshell, we have two ways of describing a book: by plot or theme. Let's take a book I read recently, The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler:
The thematic description of The Parable is, of course, MY reading of the book; it may not have been what Butler intended. Each reader (and each generation) brings their own perspective and life experience to a book (or any work of art) because interpretation is not about taking meaning out; it's about putting meaning in.
But if every reader brings their own interpretation to the table, should a writer even bother being intentional about a theme? IMO, yes. A theme adds depth and cohesion to a narrative. Theme is like a spice that infuses the book; you may not be able to identify the spice, but it adds a memorable flavour to the writing that will linger with the reader.
What Makes a Good Theme?
Too often I see a theme described in concepts so huge that they lose all meaning: love, loss, identity, courage, and so on. I believe that a great theme is simultaneously universal and personal.
Take the film of the Wizard of Oz as an example. A classic, I think we can all agree. As a classic film, it can be viewed through many critical lenses (Feminist, Marxist, Queer, etc.), each bringing its own interpretation of theme. But there is also a clear, intentional theme: There's no place like home. This theme is both general (everyone would agree) but also specific (we agree based on our own experience of 'home').
'There's no place like home' is what I call a 'thesis' theme because it wants you, the viewer, to agree that 'home' is the best place for you. The plot of the film is formulated to prove the thesis, adopting a definite stance. One sees this kind of theme often in kids' films that attempt to impart a moral lesson, as well as the many early Hollywood movies that border on propaganda.
The more interesting theme is what I call a 'conundrum' theme. At the centre of the narrative is a moral dilemma that the protagonist is dealing with, a dilemma that the reader is also invited to explore. If Wizard had been less didactic, the theme might have been: 'What if you had to choose between leading a small, black-and-white life in the bosom of your family, OR live a large, adventurous, technicolourful life with your dearest friends?'
If you are a writer struggling to identify your theme, start with your protagonist. Identify what their 'journey' is and think about all the conundrums that arise from that. Pick just one that interests you most and develop it through the narrative as you revise your manuscript. You don't have to be heavy handed! But with a little intentionality, you can create a story that both entertains your readers AND challenges them to think about themselves and/or the world ... now that's a book with spine!
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith