Theme: why your story matters (tip 70) 2

Why should anyone care about your story? After all, they’ve never met the people you’re writing about. In this introduction to the importance of a story’s theme, I’ll make reference to David Foster Wallace’s short story “Forever Overhead.” You can read this story online here.

Video transcript follows below:

There is a story about the great composer Stravinsky.  It’s said that once, after he played a new composition, one of his students ran to the piano, breathless with awe: ‘Master, master, it is wonderful!  Wonderful!  But what does it mean?’

By the way, please note the way Stravinsky’s students reacted towards him.  One of these days I’m going to read some hopeless short story I’ve written and no matter how crap it is I want hundreds of likes and breathless comments about how, Wonderful, wonderful, it is – but what does it mean?’

I digress.  Stravinsky played this new piece and his student ran to the piano and said ‘It is wonderful, wonderful.  What does it mean?’

‘‘What does it mean?’ said Stravinsky, seating himself back at the piano.  Then he played the whole work again, exactly as he had played it before.

We can make the same point about much visual art: take Jackson Pollock’s ‘Black and White’ One can discuss the painting’s texture, its shapes, the emotions it evokes, but it seems a silly question to ask what it means.  Literature, I think, is different.  Words mean.  Even a simple sentence has a meaning; a person who was interested only in the shape of words or the sound of words might be hailed as a visual artist or an innovative musician, but she would not be called a writer.

When discussing the meaning of a piece of writing, a distinction is sometimes made between the subject and the theme. And the distinction is easier to illustrate than explain.

Imagine a short story in which a pubescent boy skips school and plays with a radio-controlled car, zipping it across his home street, imagining high speed chases, revelling in its indestructibility, bouncing it off kerbstones, at full speed, so the whole shell of it vibrates.  And then, one day, he hears a violent argument from inside the house and in dashes and pauses he reaches the window, peering in as his father strikes his mother.  As he watches her crying, he neglects to control the car, not seeing it lurch onto the road, barely hearing the snap and shatter as a transit van crushes it under wheel.

The subject of that story is a little boy playing with his toy car until it’s smashed by a truck while he witnesses an act of domestic violence. But we might analyse it and say that the theme is about loss of innocence and the harsh realities of the adult world.

Similarly, in David Foster Wallace’s short story “Forever Overhead” we learn about a boy who on his thirteenth birthday leaves a swimming pool. And climbs up to the top diving board. On the ladder, he realises that he’s in a queue of people and there’s no way he can go backwards. It’s a machine that moves only forwards. The story ends when he reaches the edge of the board. It’s several thousand words long, and that’s all that happens. The subject is a boy on his birthday who wants to dive off the top board, but we might analyse the story and decide that the theme is about mortality, the irreversibility of time, the death of childhood.

It’s not that the theme is what the story is really about. If you read “Forever Overhead”, you’ll see what pains Foster Wallace goes to to describe the diving board and the swimming pool in Tuscon, Arizona, and the mountains in the background like an EKG of a dying day. It’s really, really about being in that pool.

Rather, I think the theme of a story describes the generalisation or abstraction we can make from the subject matter.  It is through recognising the theme that we can explain why the subject matter matters; why it is relevant to more people than the characters.  Let’s face it; you don’t know the people you encounter in a short story – there’s no particular reason for you to care about them.  Reading a short story’s not like reading a Facebook post – had toast this morning, lol.  If a short story’s going to matter then it has to have some general relevance to our lives.  A thematic relevance that goes beyond the specific details of a few people we don’t know doing stuff we’re not interested in.  So, for example, few people ever had a toy car that was crushed by a transit van as they watched a scene of domestic violence, but almost everyone must go through the transition from childhood to adulthood. Few of us dived off the top board on our thirteenth birthday, but we all face the irreversibility of time, the death of childhood, and the inevitability of growing older.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses a photography by Theilr. It is covered be a creative commons license, and you can find more of his work here:


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