Theme in Storytelling

Mark Barrett has lately been publishing a series of posts about THEME on his site Ditchwalk

He cites Thomas McCormack’s book THE FICTION EDITOR which includes a chapter called Axing Theme.

To quote Mr McCormack – ‘Let’s start calmly: Each appearance of the word ‘theme’ in a literature appreciation textbook should be marked with that yellow crime-scene tape. Samples of the way ‘theme’ is taught should be sent to Atlanta so the Centers for Disease Control can get on it…I seriously pursue this crusade here, albeit in condensed, almost outline, form, because I believe that what’s being done in classrooms stunts, and even kills, the ability and appetite of many of the best students. This deprives our globe of much talent that would otherwise find itself in writing, teaching, reading . . . and editing.’

When Mark Barrett asked Mr McCormack for permission to quote from his book he received this reply – ‘I have no objection to your posting the piece wherever you will — the primary motivation behind my writing that book was not to get rich but to promulgate some helpful things I’d learned in many years of association with storytelling.’

Flannery O’Connor’s take on THEME – “People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like a string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction. . . . The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”

You can access Mr McCormack’s full article about Theme and its dire effects here.