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I've heard quite a lot that a story must have a theme, summarized as a sentence that states something as being true; I've also heard (or read) that a story's theme is usually arrived (or not) at by the end of the story, by means of the main character's struggle.

The question is, am I right to believe that to each theme, there must exist an equally strong anti-theme, that is also sometimes called 'the lie'? Are theme and anti-theme a different way of saying "the truth and the lie"?

I'm asking this question as I've seen the term "theme" mentioned quite often, but have found almost no mentions of anti-theme, except for very recent publications on various blogs, which I suppose means this is not such an old concept?

Also, as a way of giving some supportive context to the question, I've heard of the term called "thematic conflict" (I find it rather difficult to understand such abstract literary terms). which I suppose is the battle of conflicting ideas? (theme and anti-theme)

Also, I've read that both theme and anti-theme are true, and are presented as two different arguments on the same topic? Would that be a correct way of seeing that? :)

Because, as I gleaned from various sources, the character must come to the realization of the theme (or fail at doing so), so that means he must be coming from a state pretty much different from what the theme supposes.

I'm sorry of this is all a big jumble, but I'm unfortunately a bit confused as to the terms, but if they indeed do exist in such dichotomy, I'd appreciate your mentioning a couple of examples from classical literature, so that I could proceed from the more abstract to the more tangible, as I find it a much easier way to learn such concepts:D

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  • In rhetoric, this is sometimes called a dialectic, and may be extended to thesis-antithesis-synthesis (an idea, its negation, and some reconciliation of the opposing viewpoints). Unfortunately, I must admit that I find much of the writing on this subject impenetrable, so I can't provide a more substantive answer than that (and I'm unsure how well it would transfer to fiction in any event).
    – Kevin
    Mar 17 at 23:32
  • "The question is, am I right to believe that to each theme, there must exist an equally strong anti-theme..." No, that's totally wrong. It's not a "generally held, or often discussed" idea. It sounds like, while doing your early reading on the topic, which is great, you stumbled on one or the other article that happens to mention, in a confused way, this term - I'd just forget about it.
    – Fattie
    Mar 19 at 19:14

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In its original meaning, a theme is what a story is about. Examples are difficult to provide, because the theme of each story is a matter of interpretation and opinion. For example, Tolkien said that the theme of The Lord of the Rings is death and human desire to escape it, while others have found the themes of that book to be criticism of technology, courage, addiction to power and so on. Wikipedia has an article that lists all kinds of different themes that scholars have identified in The Lord of the Rings, if you are interested.

But let us assume, for the moment, that for the writer the theme is what he or she intends the book to be about. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, apparently, for Tolkien the book was about human desire for immortality.

The thematic statement, then, is the argument that the author wants the book to make about the theme. That is, the author intends the story to illustrate the thematic statement and clearly show that it is true.

Not all books have a thematic statement. For example, it could be argued that Tolkien explored the theme of death and immortality in The Lord of the Rings, but did not present a clear, unequivocal statement on it. Again, there is a Wikipedia article that presents the complex system of death and immortality in Tolkien's Middle-earth.

But other books certainly do make a thematic statement. For example, the theme of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is the futility of human struggle and the thematic statment is clearly given by the title of the book: "The best-laid schemes of mice and men go oft awry."

The idea behind the concept of an anti-theme is that every argument needs a counterargument, because "you can’t really argue if no one is disagreeing". As the concept of the anti-theme is presented, stories are thought to present both sides of an argument and to arrive at one concluding truth at the end. For example, in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the thematic statement is supposed to be that "we should trust in faith" while the anti-theme is that "we should trust in technology". Or in Harry Potter, the thematic statement is said to be, "Love is the most powerful force in the world", while the anti-theme is, "Hatred is the most powerful force in the world."

I could be said that in Harry Potter and Star Wars – A New Hope, there are clearly factions that seem to represent love versus technology or love versus hatred, respectively. But I think that novels aren't essays and that for the most part they don't present an argument to arrive at a conclusion. Most fiction is more complex than that.

For example, there is another major theme in Of Mice and Men, and that is the theme of friendship, family, hope, and home. And there is another thematic statment made in relation to that theme, which is that: "Having a friend is necessary for one to maintain hope for their future." Or in the words of one of the characters: "A guy goes nuts if he ain't got anybody." The novel then goes on to illustrate this truth.

But is that a second theme, separate from the first one (the futility of human hope)? Or is this the "anti-theme"? I think it could be said that in Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men there is an interaction between two major themes that aren't opposed to each other like argument and counterargument, but rather intersect at an odd angle: having a friend is necessary to have hope, and hope is futile.

What makes the book great literature then is the complex interaction that results from playing these two themes against each other, like two instruments that play different melodies in a complex piece of music.

And the same can be said about The Lord of the Rings, where we have mortal beings that are gifted with immortality for their selfless courage (such as Frodo, who transitions to Valinor), we have immortal beings who give up their immortality for love (such as Arwen), we have immortal beings who are denied immortality and pass away to nothing (like Saruman) and so on. Death and immortality aren't exactly counterarguments in Tolkien's book, but interact to create a complex fabric of possibilities that is more intriguing than a clear and simple – and questionable – truth would be.

And that is how I would employ the idea of an "anti-theme": As another theme, not so much arguing against the main theme, but at odds with it and creating complexity.

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    I literally bothered clicking the Join this community button to comment on how elegant this post is! TY
    – Fattie
    Mar 19 at 18:58
  • 1
    @Fattie That's kind of you. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.
    – Ben
    Mar 19 at 20:18
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I don't believe this at all. A theme is nice if you can work with that handcuffs on, they can help tie a story together.

The story can be about, say, how impulsive decisions may have short term payoffs but always lead to regret and grief.

But the opposite of that would be that impulsive decisions do not have short term payoffs, or do not lead to regret and grief.

If you include the anti-theme, then the story has no theme, they cancel each other out.

But that does not mean it is a bad story, it is exploring the consequences of impulsive decisions.

Which to me, can be just as fun and true and more realistic. Some of my impulsive decisions have paid off financially, others have changed the course of my life for the better, and I have no regrets because I lost nothing from them.

The only commonality I find in stories, which seems to be a rule to make a good story, is that you have to beat the living hell out of your hero.

The first Die Hard movie with Bruce Willis is the epitome of the fiction hero. The hallmark of a hero in a story is that they get knocked down, kicked in the face, cut, shot, beat to a pulp, and they always, always, find a way to get back up.

The fiction hero would literally rather die than give up. In some stories they do die, but in most, the final initiative in the third act is just all in, bet everything, bet your life and don't look back.

Metaphorically speaking, whether it is a love story or save the universe superhero story, that all-in damn-the-torpedoes-full-steam-ahead sword-fight without any armor win or die scene is what makes a hero.

This is just my opinion, but that is all the "theme" you need for a good read.

If you can find one, then there is no "anti-theme", that would just dilute the theme into non-existence.

You could have villains and their minions touting the anti-theme, to tempt the hero, but have those that fall for it prove the theme.

But if anybody succeeds with the anti-theme, you don't have a theme, you just have real life. Which is okay, you don't really need a theme at all.

Just have your hero keep getting knocked into the dirt, bloody and bruised, and then crying, broken ...

get. back. up. And roar.

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