Theme comes in lots of shapes, sizes, and variations, but embodies the core of what something is about, whether it’s your brand as a writer, the story you’re writing, the characters you’re writing about – or the music you’re listening to while writing. So what is theme, and how can it help focus and clarify your purpose as an author?
Theme is the underlying idea that makes something tick. It is pervasive and affects everything about the whole, without being overt or overbearing. In fact, the best practical expression of theme in writing rarely shows up as words on paper. Rather, theme directs the words in order to come up with a finished product with specific meaning at a deeper level.
Let’s look at theme from the big picture to the more detailed aspects. First is your theme as a writer. Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish – and how are you different from the thousands of other writers out there? If you’ve never written a mission statement for yourself, this is a great exercise. The answers to these questions can keep you focused and motivated. A bonus for taking a few minutes, hours, or weeks to analyze your purpose is that you may come up with a brand, a concise statement of why you are unique and what you have to offer your readers. If you’d like to take more time to contemplate your calling as a writer, Lent is a perfect time for reflection. Use it!
On to story. What are you writing about? Not the plot – what happens – but the deeper meaning? This is the place for clichés. Not in the writing, but in your mind. Clichés tend toward the universal, and that’s what you’re after here. Identify the most resonant concept underpinning your story. Love conquers all… People and relationships are more important than one-upping the Joneses… Revenge, or mercy? Man against nature/beast (human or otherwise)/impossible odds, etc. Once you nail it down, make sure that the theme drives every scene in the story. Don’t beat the reader over the head with it—theme is best conveyed through subtlety—but your awareness will influence the words as they pour forth. Theme will provide conflict and growth throughout the book, even if each scene doesn’t have an overt thematic question.
One caveat about theme (a very large one), as it relates to story: Do not use theme to further your agenda. Readers will pick up on it and put your book down. Let the characters struggle with the issues in a natural, organic way; don’t have them act out a morality tale. Ellen Gable Hrkach alludes to this aspect of theme in her post on Feb. 13, 2012, Improve the Odds for Self-Publishing Success. Her first book, Emily’s Hope, enjoyed modest sales to a narrow audience. Please note, there is nothing wrong with this; if your mission is to be the voice for an issue, or you write without regard to readership or sales, that is your prerogative. Ellen stated, in writing that particular book, if her words touched one person, she would have achieved her goal. She clearly succeeded. But Ellen then wished to engage a larger audience. What did she do? She chose to widen the scope of theme in subsequent books – which are selling more briskly. So the idea of theme circles back to one’s theme as writer, which will inform your choices of theme in specific works.
Which leads us to the third level of theme. Characters. Each character should have a core belief or value that can be summed up in a short phrase. Duty first… Me first… Life is an adventure! Life is dangerous… Again, clichés rule here. What is most important to each individual character, i.e., what will they fight to the death for? The flip side is critical, too. What conflict will the character walk away from, and why? Once you understand your characters, keep that core belief in mind as you write. Your characters will stay true to themselves and their motivations, making for a book that readers will remember long after they’ve finished it. A bonus at this level: Your character’s theme is always a two-edged sword. Use it. Create conflict with it – and then find a way for the character to grow. By the end of the book, their theme may have changed; at the very least, they will live it in a deeper manner, and the reader will love them (and you) for it.
Do you consciously use theme in your writing? If so, how? Or, as you look back on your work, can you see theme at any of the three levels we’ve examined?