‘Caught up in the Jaws’: Writing for Theme

January 23, 2023 § 1 Comment

In our latest Craft Essay offerings, Aaron Gilbreath demonstrates how “theme” in nonfiction can “expand the gaze of one person’s life to reveal something larger about our culture, our times, or human relationships.” Here’s an excerpt from Aaron’s wonderfully useful essay:

Without a universal theme, personal essayists can end up writing anecdotes or catalogues of events that lapse into myopia and fail to connect our experience with readers’ experience. An anecdote is defined as “a short and amusing or interesting story about a real incident or person.” To that I would add it’s “something that limits, rather than expands, a personal story’s interest, and largely confines that interest to the people in the anecdote.” A harsher take would be “something that makes a story insular, provincial, or boring.” Since anecdotes are stories of limited scope, they limit their readers. Some aren’t even stories: They lack the structure of beginning, middle, and end, and fail to extrapolate meaning from the chronology they string together. …

Think of theme this way: Themes make personal experience universal by relating your private experience to the reader’s experience, and to the larger human condition. Let the reader see themselves in you. They will connect to your personal essay if they can relate to you through your story’s theme. Themes expand the gaze of one person’s life—usually our protagonist’s—to reveal something larger about our culture, our times, or human relationships. Every story is about something more than its events. Things happen, yes, but what do they tells us about ourselves and our world? How does your chronology of personal events distill meaning that strangers—your readers—can relate to? As the writer, you must really work that rich thematic vein beyond plot. You want to show readers why this story is relevant.

You can read Aaron Gilbreath’s full discussion of “theme” in Our Craft Section, here.


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