Theme for me is the backbone of my story. The sum of what it's all about. It can be something as vague as revenge to something more exact like learning to trust and accept offers of friendship.
A good theme can also be wrapped up in an idea. It can appear before you start writing or it can be found as you write either way works, and no idea needs to remain fixed. Initial themes can be traded up or added to. Good fiction can have transparent themes, or more complex multi-themes. I don't know if there is such a thing as a bad theme. But there is a feeling of wasted themes that happens in bad fiction/movies. Especially when it relies too much on the cliches of its genre or recent trends.
Take for instance the rather lame-brained but 'fun' ( I liked it ) 1993 movie, The Crush. For those who haven't seen it, it is a movie about a young researcher named Nick who has just moved to a new city and is looking for a nice place to stay. After nearly running down a young girl who is roller blading, he notices the estate she wheels into is offering a guest house for rent and seeing the dreamy, over-the-garage little haven, moves in. The parents who constantly work are grateful to have someone around to keep an eye on their precocious ( and gorgeous ) fourteen year old daughter, Adrienne ( originally called Darien.) The girl develops a fast crush on Nick who is too dim to notice. Even when a female co-worker points it out he scoffs. And it's not until Adrienne kisses him, breaks into his apartment, rewrites his articles, and leaves a hundred messages on his answering machine in one day that he starts to get a clue. But by then it's too late. Adrienne is trying to off the competition – Nick's legal-aged gal-pal ( by sicking bees on her ), - wreck his job, scratch his car, and when all else fails cry rape. There's a goofy showdown in an attic with a full scale carousel so the movie can have a 'Hitchcock' moment.
All in all it trucks along like any other 90's psycho-thriller; thin on the whys, open ended, leering and veiled in a sketchy theme. I mean what is after all the theme of this movie? That Nick should've told Darien from the get-go any relationship between them would've been inappropriate? – but would it have mattered if she's a psycho? See what I mean about trends and sketchy themes.
But you know what, if you take the time to dig through this movie there's some terrific themes lurking about that could become better, brighter stories. And that's all you really need to do. You don't need to look for a theme you just need to start examining ideas, and notions and questioning them.
For instance the moment when Darien does Nick's work ( rewrites his article ) and does it better, it's a tremendous hit to his ego.
What a terrific idea for a theme – ego and age. Why is it so damning when someone younger does something better than an older person?
Or how about a crush on someone's ability not the actual person?
How about all those moments when Darien appears to pose for Nick putting her body on display – another great idea. What if Darien watched and read Lolita and was grooming herself into a type hoping to snare herself another type – her Humbert Humbert. Another cool idea for a theme – identity forsaken for archetype. Or pop cultures influence on behavior.
How about some of the basics, when the character of Amy asks if Nick has done anything to encourage the crush – great theme there – taking advantage of a situation or ignoring a situation because it's flattering.
How about something more complex - her sensing her sexuality as a source of power, and because of her age can wield it without the consequences falling on her.
Themes can be found anywhere. Something in a conversation can spark a theme, or a trend, or an event in the news. Pop culture has the ability to give you a multitude of themes to work with that can take you, if you have a discerning eye, beyond trends. You can even find them in junk movies, cartoons, articles, books, ads anything. All you have to do is notice something, and mentally examine it. Allow thoughts to spin the notion into another story. I'll try a few more.
How about a Flintstone's episode? – The one where Fred's terrible singing drives out the maid – delusions of grandeur – or Delusions of an ability that drives others away. Interesting.
How about songs? – Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing – lol - spicy! The Cure – Why can't I be you – gender envy, identity issues.
Here's another movie, Pretty Smart, some dumb exploitative comedy that I thought would be cool because it had a nearly all female cast. Sadly, not so.
The story is about two drastically different sisters who don't much like each other – Ziggs, a counterculture punk with resistance to authority, and Jennifer, a prep. Both are shipped off to a rundown boarding school in an old castle in Europe. Given it's comedy roots the castle still gives tours to collect money, the classes are a joke, and the principal keeps the students divided, the subs ( offbeat students ) vs the preens ( the preppy bitches ), in order to control them. This in itself would've made for an interesting story but it being the 80's, it needs a sleazy touch. The principal is allowing boys from another boarding school to have sleepovers so he can film the students 'together' and sell the tapes, and if that wasn't bad enough he uses the girls ( unwittingly ) as mules for drugs. In the end the sisters discover his criminal habits, unite the two groups and drive the principal out of 'their' school.
The story has some great themes that were ignored or over shadowed by the seamier aspects of the story.
First of all these girls are in another country and the culture shock issue is barely raised. These are girls so seeped in American culture – preps and punks - now thrown into a place that doesn't seem to favor either so what are they clinging to?
Here's another – the most obvious – manipulation and abuse of authority. But what if the reason wasn't so seamy. Imagine the power of a teacher/principal picking and choosing who was bullied and who was favored and all the whys.
Your source doesn't have to be trash either it can be something great like The King's Speech – the embarrassment of a disability, or how easy it is to undo a reputation with something so minor.
Try it out yourself. Take notice of something – a photograph, a twitter comment, a Youtube video. The idea is to keep mentally picking away at something, catching a thread of thought and holding on. It doesn't even have to be about the story/movie itself, it could an impression that sparks a theme.
And the great thing about this technique is - the themes are timeless. A movie from a half a century ago can spark a theme that can be just as relevant/interesting to todays reader as any recent movie.
Discover something that speaks to you.