When I had my first crack at writing a novel, I had no idea about theme (in fact, I had no idea about a lot of things – both writing related and other). When I started on my second novel, I still had no idea about theme but certain constants were starting to show. My third novel – now I actually knew what theme was but I didn’t know why it was important. Novel number four and I was finally getting a grasp of theme, and for novel number five (which is waiting for me to reread it) I had theme in mind right at the beginning.
Good for you. What is theme?
Theme is the underlying, invisible driving force of a story. It’s what your English and Lit teachers use to construct essay questions. It’s the central, universal, question that you’re hoping to tackle through your story.
Let’s look at the themes of a few well known stories.
Sing – The theme is being true to your authentic self. We see this in how the significant characters, but particularly Buster Moon, change over the course of the movie. In the beginning Buster is focused on getting enough money to save his theater and he is willing to do anything to do this. In the end Buster has rediscovered his love theater, finding the magic in the performance and not the financial gain.
Cinderella – The theme is good things come to good people. Cinderella is good, patient and kind-hearted, despite the treatment of her step-family. Because of this she is helped by her fairy godmother and ultimately marries the prince and lives happily ever after (not a moral for modern times but remember that this story is hundreds of years old).
Harry Potter – The theme is love is more powerful than hate. Harry is the embodiment of love – literally saved by his mother powerful maternal love – and Voldemort is the embodiment of hate – a fascist who uses fear to incite hatred and hatred to incite violence.
So, why is theme important?
Theme is invisible but that doesn’t make it unimportant. The foundations of a building are also invisible, but you wouldn’t want to live in a house without them (unless you’re Steve and live in Minecraft – in which case it seems to be fine). Theme is what makes your story resonate with the reader long after the book has been put down. It’s the ‘so what?’ that makes your story worth reading.
If Harry Potter was just about a boy who finds out he was a wizard, it would still be an interesting read but I’d like to argue it wouldn’t be the worldwide success it has been. It’s that underlying theme of the struggle between love and hate and good and evil that makes it resonate with people, young and old, male and female, world-wide.
What makes a good theme?
A good theme is universal. It should resonate with you but not so specifically that it doesn’t resonate with others.
Bad theme: Why does my boyfriend not want to get married?
Good theme: Is it possible for a relationship to last, if both people want different things?
You should be able to convey the theme of your story in a sentence or two.
Theme: There will always be a struggle between good and evil. (Star Wars)
A theme is not dependent on the characters or plot. The same theme can apply to many different stories, across genres.
Theme: We are stronger together than apart – A Bug’s Life, Cars, Lord of the Rings, Little Women.
How do you know what your theme is?
For me, theme is what drew me to write the story in the first place. The theme of the book I’m currently working on, about Maggie and her sister with anorexia, is is there any limit to how much we can, or should, sacrifice for the people we love. The inspiration for the book came from an article I read about a family in which the youngest child had been diagnosed with anorexia (she was about seven). To find treatment for her, the mother and daughter had to go to Sydney and the mother was away from her teenage son for several weeks. I wondered about what else this boy would be expected sacrifice, and was there a point where a line would have be drawn.
Some other authors say that they don’t know the theme of their story until much later, even several drafts in. Others say it’s the first thing they know. If you don’t think you know the theme of your current work, read through it again. What ideas are coming up again and again? Do they resonate with you? And, would they resonate with others.
At some point you will want to know the theme of your work because everything else, your characters, their goals and motivations, will have to reflect the theme in some way.
What’s your take on theme? Have you thought about it much? When do you feel you’ve got the theme of your story worked out?