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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Over 100 different exercises lead you through the novel-planning process, with ten workshops that build upon each other to flesh out your idea as much or as little as you need to do to start writing.
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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