Is a Theme Essential?

A plot is a sequence of events that tell a story. A theme tells us why the events happened. Without the “why,” I have a story about nothing. Can a story about nothing succeed? One could point to the Seinfeld television sitcom to prove plot and theme are not essential to create a successful story.

The Seinfeld sitcom became known as “a show about nothing” because it appeared to lack both elements. The show offered no growth or reconciliation to its characters. The producers deliberately avoided the sentimental.  Humor typically drove the episode interspersed with superficial conflicts between characters.  Many episodes revolved around the characters’ involvement in the lives of others with disastrous results.  On the set, the notion that the characters should not develop or improve throughout the series was expressed as the “no hugging, no learning” rule.

Seinfeld broke the conventions of mainstream television and succeeded. The show ran for nine years. While the sitcom had a reputation as a show about nothing, Seinfield had a theme. He pitched the idea to NBC as a show about how comedians get their material. He never considered it a show about nothing.

If you write about nothing, you have nothing. Some writers start with a theme. Others find the theme as they write. I wrote close to 100 stories about local Christians. Each story began without a theme. During the process of writing, a clear theme always emerged.  Once the theme came to light, it guided how I wrote and edited the story.

Breaking the rules of writing occasionally produces a success. But a theme is essential. If you are in the process of writing and don’t have a theme yet. Don’t worry. A theme will come to you. If it doesn’t keep writing until you have one. Without a deeper meaning than just a plot, you have a forgettable story that will leave the reader empty.

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