Theme is an often misunderstood and underused aspect of a novel. Years of English classes have made us think that theme is something reserved for literary novels or stories with deep, meaningful messages, not for commercial fiction and good old fashioned stories.
Theme is a highly useful part of any novel, be it a light-hearted romp or a nail-biting adventure. It's an element that gives greater meaning to the story and turns background fluff into substance. Basically, it gives a story street cred.
That's because theme can tie individual pieces of a story together so they work on multiple levels. Descriptive details resonate with a character's mood, or a plot point becomes a mirror to a internal struggle. Theme makes everything in the story matter.
Unsure what your theme is? Ask yourself...
What larger concepts do you want to explore with your novel?
Odds are there's more to the story you want to tell than a series of plot events, no matter how cool those plot events might be (and if there's not, that's okay, too). Perhaps you're exploring the nature of power, or what it means to be human, or how a good person can do bad things. Whatever it is, there's something bigger in your story on a conceptual level. If someone asked you what your story was about, you might even use this to describe it.
Try making of list of the concepts in your novel. Are there any common elements developing? Can you see a bigger picture connecting them? If not, think about how you might connect them or how they might work together to create a larger idea.
If you had to pick one cliché or adage to describe your novel, what would it be? How might you adapt that as your theme?
It might sound silly, but clichés are practically theme shorthand. If it sounds like something you'd stitch on a pillow or Grandma has it framed on her wall, there's a good chance it's your theme. "Love conquers all" is a great theme for a romance novel that explores the struggles a couple goes through to be happy. "You can't fight city hall" might work for a dystopian that explores the futility of trying to change the way society works. Or you might tweak it and say "you can fight city hall" to show that a small group of people can indeed change the world for the better.
Try picking the cliché that best fits your novel and see where you can use it to flesh out a scene or element in the story. Look for places where this theme can be illustrated. For example, show moments where "love" makes a difference, even if it's obliquely. Themes don't have to bang readers over the head to be effective.
What are common problems in the novel? Do they point to a theme?
If no cliché works, and there are no larger concepts behind the story, trying looking at the problems the characters face. Is there a common element to them? Are there similar obstacles or struggles to be overcome? For example, if you notice a lot of problems that deal with the protagonist trying to prove something about himself, then maybe the theme is about being true to who you are, or standing up to those who lack faith in you.
Try listing the problems in your novel and see if there's a common thread that could be developed into your theme.
What are common character flaws or dreams?
The theme might apply to more than just the protagonist. Maybe every character is facing a similar problem, either internally or externally. If they all lack generosity in some way, perhaps the theme is related to greed or selfishness. What they hope for can also suggest a theme. If all the major characters wish for a life without fear, then overcoming fear might be your theme.
Try listing the flaws, then the dreams, of your major characters. Look for similarities that could hint at a larger theme.
Once you've found your theme, use it to deepen your novel by giving greater meaning to your scenes. While not every scene needs to be dripping with theme, even thinking about the bigger picture as you write could influence how you choose to develop those scenes--what details you use to describe the setting, how someone reacts, what happens overall. When faced with choices on what to use or do, think about how it might show the theme and if that will make the scene richer.
Do you use theme in your novels? Do you plan for it or does it just happen?
Looking for more on planning or revising your novel? Check out my newest book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel.
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Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to planning your novel, as well as a handy tool for revising a first draft, or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working.
Janice Hardy is the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now. She lives in Georgia with her husband, one yard zombie, three cats, and a very nervous freshwater eel. Find out more about writing at her site, Fiction University, or find her on Twitter @Janice_Hardy
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I may be a WITS blogger and have access any time I want, but this one is going in my Craft folder, Janice. Wonderful, thought-provoking post.
I do write with a theme in mind, but since I'm a pantser, I usually don't see how the threads come together until the end. And any I leave dangling, I can count on our own 'theme-girl', Jenny, to point them out to me.
Strong themes are what I love in my reading material, too. That deeper meaning gives me that satisfying sigh at the end of a novel, no matter what genre.
Thanks so much for the amazing post! Can't wait to see everyone's themes in the comments!
Thanks Laura! I'm a plotter myself, but I've always thought that theme would be invaluable to pantsers as a story guide.
Thanks for having me back again! It's always fun to hang out with WITS 🙂
Always a pleasure having you on WITS, Janice! Loved this post. And as you pointed out in the reply to Laura, it's a great guide for us pantsers.
Janice, I have a special word doc reserved for WITS. I keep them for insight and to remind me of how much writers like yourself teach us about our craft. I don't think about theme or underlying messages when I am reading a new book.
In my writing, even though I love to fly by the seat of my undies, it is always the underlying theme or message that happens first. That single line ... or a single thought that pushes me over the edge. When I can no longer ignore that message or the nagging character in my head, I write the story.
However, I do get mired down in the middle, freeze at a crossroad or get lost half-way home and your great posts will make it easier for me to negotiate those moments. Thanks for sharing 🙂
They're awesome, and I've been a fan for years now. I love that--the message nags you to write it. That's such a great way to describe your process. Glad my thoughts on craft can help during those rough times 🙂
Janice, this is so incredibly useful. I've just started writing synopses for my novels, now that I'm on contract with Penguin to produce work every year, and as a former pantser, I've been stunned by how hard it is to decide on a theme for the novel--but how important it is to do that, so that the conflicts I lay out on the page for my characters are all related in some way to that theme. Instead of limiting, as I expected this practice to be, I find it liberating--I can really play with imagery and language when I know what the central ideas are in the book. Thinking about the theme (or themes) in your novel are also really useful when it's time to write (or review for the publisher) whatever jacket and sales copy is going to accompany the book. Thank you for this important reminder.
Glad it helps! You just added another example to something I mentioned in another comment--pantsers who loves theme to help then write 🙂 It's like outlining for pantsers, lol. You guys prove that structure can be found in all kinds of places, and having a guide for your writing can be a huge benefit--even if that guide differs from writer to writer.
I have mixed feelings about this.
On one hand, I think that if we overthink theme when trying to tell our story, that we can sometimes allow us to be too heavy handed about it in our writing. Get too didactic about an issue or overdo a character's introspection to make the theme too explicit or make it so that the story has a message or lesson vs. simply offering an emotional experience.
On the other hand, theme can help us have focus and obviously a strong theme can make a story that much richer. To that end, I like best when you talk about identifying/recognizing common character flaws and dreams. It resonates with the way I approach my writing. I ask myself the question, What will my protagonist learn by the end? How will she have changed? When I keep that in my brain, it does indeed help me direct the story.
The cliché description is great. Few people would outright admit that our stories can follow these clichés. We get so fearful of using clichés specifically in our writing that we forget that clichés as a whole describe universal themes - and there's nothing wrong with a universal theme, right? We just want to show off how we can express it in a new way.
Thanks for the obviously thought-provoking post. 🙂
Like all things in writing, theme is just a tool to help a writer tell a story. How much or how little it's used is up to the writer. Some might find building the story from the theme the right process, while others won't look at the theme until after the first draft is done. And some won't worry about it at all. These are all acceptable ways to write a novel.
Theme is one way to help deepen a story, but it's certainly not the only way. If it feels too heavy handed for someone and hurts the story, then it might not be the right tool for that story or writer. Or as you mentioned, there could be an aspect of theme building that works to guide the writing process of an individual writer.
I do think it's worth at least asking yourself at some point: "Do I want to explore a deeper meaning in this story, and if so, what and how?" If the answer is yes, you can develop it from there. If the answer is no, the story develops in other areas.
Oh yes, absolutely to all of this! I appreciate the suggestions you provide for this angle, too.
Wow Janice, I agree that this blog is a real keeper. I like your ideas about using Cliches esp. when telling someone else what the story is about. Being a pantster, I don't always know what my theme is until I start writing it. Usually getting to know my characters identifies the them (as you mentioned) Then it practically jumps out at me. That's when I have to go back and make sure it's woven into the fabric of the story. Usually it is, because the theme was a subconscious thing from the beginning but it doesn't hurt to tweak where needed. 🙂 I think most of us write the theme before we know what it is.
It's also no uncommon to think you have one theme and then discover another by the end of the first draft. Stories evolve and things can change. I usually start out with a general theme, maybe one word (like say, identity) and then as the story develops that idea gets shaped into something more specific.
Great article. There was a time when I wrote without creating an outline. The book in question was a meandering mess that spanned 300000 words and five themes. Since then I have split the story into those five sections and am now crafting clearer themes. Can you have more than one or two themes and still have consistency? Editing them after its finished is difficult so, now I start with theme and delve down from there. I agree with how it elevates the literary quality, layering the story with allegory. How long does it take you two craft your stories now? Does your process shave time off for you?
I think you can have an many themes as you want as long as they work with the story. You might have a novel theme, individual character themes, arc themes. Every book will be different based on what you want to accomplish from it. As long as it serves the story and isn't mucking it up or pulling it in too many directions, you should be fine.
A first draft for me really depends on the book. Theme helps me a lot with shaping the scenes and character arcs, but what makes the entire process easier for me is knowing the ending. The books where I have a solid grasp on how it ends unfold very quickly, the ones where I have a vague idea take forever.
Thanks for bringing story theme to mind, Janice. I tend to put it on top of the bookshelf sometimes. My head is wrapped around a vague idea as to what the theme is but if I dwell on it too much, I end up being a child taking his or her first steps. I merely let it take its course. The combination to the lock is there, it just takes a bit of time to fall into place.
I agree with Janet Rundquist when she writes: …. I think that if we over-think theme when trying to tell our story, that we can sometimes allow us to be too heavy handed about it in our writing.
Listing the concepts in your novel to see if there are any common elements developing is a great idea, Janice. In fact, your advice has prompted me to stop work right now and do just that.
As I mentioned to Janet, theme is just a tool. When you use it and how much you use it is totally up to you. If it interferes with your creative process then there's nothing wrong with leaving it until revisions and seeing where and how you can deepen it in the novel.
I think if we over think anything it can be heavy handed. Someone too caught up in world building often has way too many details and the description and infodumps bog the story down. Too caught up in characters--we often end up with heavy backstory and a lot of navel gazing. Over-focused on the plot premise and we can end up with a plot that feel forced or contrived.
Use the tool as you see fit in a way that helps you write the best story you can, no matter what that tool is.
Good topic. Most of my themes happen by serendipity. I'll toss around a story idea for ages without writing anything, then I'll pick up some non-fiction book on whatever random subject for reasons unrelated to my writing. Then, usually on page 78 or 112, an idea will be expressed that jumps out as if writing in a 75-point neon font. Yes! That's what my story is about. The corruption of power! The unbreakable bond of sisterhood! The seduction of green food coloring in mint ice cream!
I'm still trying to weave that third one in.
You made me laugh, Eric - I'll bet you're a great writer!
You are my new best friend.
I'm Breyer's gal, so I would not be seduced by that last one (grin). That's sound great, though. Perfect example of someone's subconscious working it all out behind the scenes. There are so many ways someone can use and apply theme to their work.
I've enjoyed your blog for years and am so glad to see that you have put together a craft book. I will be picking this up for sure.
Aw, thanks so much! It's been on my to-do list for years, and I'm delighted it's finally out there. I hope to have a few more out this year, so fingers crossed!
My biggest problem with theme is, very often, I find that, if I push a theme a little too much, it comes off as far too forced. I find that themes typically are ingrained in a story before I realize it, and, if I happen to enhance the themes along the way, good. If I push too hard to make sure you see the theme...not so good. I feel it's important to remember that subtly is very important when dealing with themes..
Absolutely, and that is a real concern. If focusing on theme too much hurts your stories, then don't do it. We all have different processes and ways of developing our novels. Use it (or not) however it works for you and best serves your story.
Beautiful post, Janice. Theme is so important in my Fantasy series you might say it's the cloth upon which the series is woven. It's reflected in the series title, the book titles, and throughout each book.
As you mention above, theme gives context to events that might otherwise seem disparate. In an epic fantasy with multiple viewpoint characters, this binding thread is essential. Perhaps its more accurate to say theme is woven into the tapestry of the story as well as providing its foundation.
Whether you're a pantser or a plotter, theme is an essential creative tool. Thanks for such a helpful article!
Thanks! Sounds like your theme is working hard in your story. That's awesome. What a great example of how it can tie everything together.
Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
Great post from WITS!
The central theme was actually the first thing that came to me when I started writing my novel, and I kind of expanded out from there. I started to think about what type of characters and conflict would convey this theme in the most subtle way - because, of course, I didn't want to hammer people over the head with it.
But I don't always think of theme as the first thing, I once wrote an entire (really bad) novel without giving a thought to the theme - but since I majored in English, I knew there had to be a theme in there somewhere and, what do you know, there was - as cliche and overused as it might be.
I've always thought of theme as the thread that holds everything together in the story. Whether a writer intentionally plans out the theme or not, if a novel works and makes sense on a greater level, it has a theme.
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