You've got your character arc and story arc with plot points all figured out. But do you know what the theme of your latest novel is? Wait. What?
What is theme anyway?
Some writers relate the theme of their story as its moral, but that's a little too simplistic. While authors might try to teach readers something, the vast majority of us just want to make a statement about the human condition.
Some familiar themes you've heard before:
- Love hurts
- Love conquers all
- Greed is bad
- Life is fleeting: carpe diem
- You always hurt those closest to you
- Hope springs eternal
- Money cannot make you happy
- Follow your heart
- Follow your dreams
- Blood is thicker than water
- Friends are the family you have chosen
What theme is not
Theme is not your character arc, nor is it the plot or what happens to your character. It's actually the essence that ties those two together. If someone asks you "what is your book about?" you don't respond with scene-by-scene detail, or the changes your character goes through.
You think of your character and what essential thing she or he comes to understand through the course of the book.
If you can't do that, you don't have a firm grasp on your story's theme.
Why theme is important
A story without an overarching statement about humanity—whether humanity sucks or it's great—is just a lot of action without meaning. Readers get hooked on stories because it makes them think deeper thoughts, and break-out novels make people question what they believe about humanity and maybe even change their opinion.
As a writer, you don't necessarily have to believe in the theme of your story. At your core, you may be a hopeless optimist, but your story wants people to know that hope is an illusion.
Examples of theme
See if you can identify a book by its theme:
- Revenge is best served cold (hint: The Count of Monte Cristo)
- Innocence is lost when confronted with evil/immoral acts (hint: To Kill a Mockingbird)
- Totalitarian governments create horrors for people (hint: 1984)
- Women's suffering and the double standard in a patriarchal society (hint: Anna Karenina)
- Mankind and human suffering is our business (hint: A Christmas Carol)
- Without civilization, we're all a bunch of savages (hint: Lord of the Flies)
How to "do" theme
A story with theme may smack you right between your eyes, coming fully formed with a strong plot and character development. There's a really old movie, Irreconcilable Differences, where the main character has an epiphany. She sees a fully formed novel about her rat of an ex-husband, and flies to the typewriter. She types, "He said it would last forever." Voila. Instant theme. Love stinks. We can all get behind that.
Some writers realize their story's theme as they write. What might be muddled at first seems to coalesce the further we get into the writing process. Then we can choose words and phrasing that supports this theme.
Other writers don't figure out their theme until the end. Then they go back through during the second draft and start adding elements to enhance and flesh out the theme.
Be careful though. Don't bludgeon your reader over the head with your theme. You'll come off as preachy and heavy-handed. Have confidence in your reader that they will be able to find the deeper meaning in your words.
What makes a break-out novel so exciting to read? I challenge you that theme is the deciding factor. Theme is what sticks with readers long after the ending.
It's what makes you wonder if you haven't been thinking wrongly about life all along. Maybe it impacts you enough to change your mind about the truths you held to be self-evident. Your theme is what makes your story universal.