Developing a resonating theme in your fictional story may seem like trying to capture fog in a jar, but if you understand the definition of theme, you can begin to spot it growing in your story, as well as consciously apply it while writing.
First, what is theme? You will likely get a slightly different explanation depending on the writing resource, but what it boils down to is this: Theme is a controlling idea in your story that can be summed up in a single phrase; it’s the takeaway message that you want the reader to think about after they finish your book. Now that we know what theme is, let’s talk about what it isn’t. Theme is not the subject of your story (which might be romance or horror or coming-of-age), or what happens (which is the plot).
Think of your story as a tree. The elements that make up your story, including characters, scenes, and dialogue, are the roots, branches, and leaves of your tree. Theme is the trunk—it runs through all of the fiction elements and holds them together as one cohesive idea.
Here are some examples of themes from modern novels:
- The Fault in Our Stars: without pain, we cannot not know true joy.
- The Harry Potter series: goodness will always triumph over evil.
- Eleanor & Park: The following quote from author Rainbow Rowell sums up the theme perfectly, “It’s a painful waste of time trying to be the sort of beautiful that everyone can agree on.”
While these statements might seem overly simplistic, they still capture a key takeaway message from their respective novels.
Now, let’s switch gears and put on our writing hats. The theme or message is what resonates when a reader finishes the last page of a book, but as writers, we have to make sure it weaves throughout story, touching all parts of the narrative, and this begins long before you’ve written your last word.
One of the great writing debates is if theme shows up organically, or if it should be consciously added. This is like the chicken or the egg dilemma …do you write with a theme in mind, or does the theme emerge as you write? I personally think that both are occurring simultaneously. Subconsciously, your story represents something you care about, something you feel you need to say. Most of the time, you don’t have a real understanding of why or what it truly is when you start out, but a theme is there, driving you to create characters and scenes that represent your theme. So, in its most rudimentary form, theme is already a seedling in your story. All you have to do is write and allow the mystery and magic of storytelling to influence the choices your characters make, their goals, their desires, and motivations that cause the plot to twist and turn.
Talented as our subconscious minds are, they only take us so far, and this is where the real work begins. As you finish your first draft and begin revisions, you’ll have to become a theme detective. You might as well hum, “Getting to know you, getting to know all about you…” As you read through your first draft, you’re going to begin to see clues to your theme. It might be a brief glimpse, but as a writer/detective, you’ll have your magnifying glass ready to hone in on that one thread. If you can’t find it, that’s okay…just keep going. Keep thinking about your story elements and revising. Ask yourself why this story is so important to you, why the characters matter. Look for any symbols or metaphors that you’ve repeated. If the overall novel seems too daunting, then look at a few chapters. What’s happening that jumps out at you?
Once you find a possible clue to your theme, write it down in its most basic form. One sentence or even one word. Put it somewhere that you can see it as you revise. Keep looking back at that word or statement as you work through the story. I’ve found that there are often false alarms…what I truly think is the theme often isn’t it, so I keep digging. You’re likely on the right track, you just find a more specific message. Once you’ve figured it out, dig deeper, explore ways to reveal the theme. Add in dialogue and scenes that delicately reinforce what you want the reader to think about. No need for strobe lights and glitter…theme is best used in a subtle fashion.
If you’re still stumped, or you like to learn by example, then look to a published novel for guidance. Choose a favorite book that you’ve read more than once and write down the message that you received upon finishing the book—a key phrase that resonated with you. Then, under that heading, pick out a handful of scenes and moments that reinforce this theme. As you create a list, you’ll begin to notice how the theme is the tree trunk holding all the other elements together. If you want to jump on the express train, find a site that has literature study guides, such as www.sparknotes.com. Most guides include a section on theme.
Being a writer means having something to say to the world, and this message is most often represented by the theme of your story. Writing theme into fiction can be difficult and time-consuming, but as you hunt down what it is you truly want to say, you’re representing the reason why we write in the first place, which is to show what it means to be human.
What is your definition of theme? What novels do you often refer to when developing theme in your own work?
I had the best experience at the New Jersey annual program outside Princeton this past weekend. It was quite a bit bigger than our intimate retreat in the Poconos, but just as friendly. Back to the subject. In one of my critiques, a faculty member suggested that I change my caterpillar story in a major way. But I protested that would change the theme of the story, the very reason I wrote it, and I am passionate about it. Her response was, “It’s your story, write it your way.”
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