Despite being a highly neglected element of storytelling, theme is in fact one of the most powerful tools at your disposal as you plan, write, and revise your novel.
In school, many of us learn to identify a theme as a single word or phrase, a broad topic explored in the story, like ‘love,’ ‘prejudice,’ or ‘good versus evil.’ Unfortunately, this is not helpful for a novelist.
Instead, think of a theme as a statement about some aspect of life or the human experience. The story is an exploration of that aspect, which ultimately reaches a conclusion – sometimes straightforward and broad, sometimes complicated and specific. This conclusion is the theme of the story.
The theme is never stated outright but rather implied through the events of the plot, the attitudes of the characters, the details of the setting, and other story material. The reader probably won’t think about it at all while reading – but they will feel it.
Some writers argue that theme arises organically and doesn’t need to be considered in the writing process. While this may be true for a few practiced storytellers who weave their thematic arguments subconsciously, as a writer, I’ve found that a story can only benefit from active consideration of theme.
Here are four reasons why:
1) Theme strengthens characterisation.
Do you ever struggle to craft meaningful character arcs? Does your group of characters sometimes feel like a random assortment of fictional people rather than a dynamic cast? Identifying and utilising your theme can help.
How? Firstly, understand that your theme should manifest in the sum of your characters’ experiences and outcomes. Each major character in your novel – and sometimes minor ones – will explore the theme in a different way. They may act according to it, against it, or somewhere in between. Taken together, their paths should reveal a clear stance on some aspect of life.
Theme makes it easier to know how your characters’ individual stories need to develop. It also brings coherence to your cast of characters and creates interesting differences among them, adding that all-important story ingredient: conflict.
2) Theme gives direction to your plot.
In addition to individual character arcs and character interactions, theme can also give you direction for the overall plot. When you find yourself asking ‘What happens next?’ or ‘Is this subplot really necessary?’, it’s time to take another look at your theme.
Think about the plot event you’re stuck on and ask yourself, ‘What needs to happen here for the theme to ring true at the end of the story?’ If a plot point doesn’t support your thematic argument, you’ll know to rework it or cut it out.
This is a handy method for avoiding pointless detours (‘What does this romance have to do with the rest of the story?’) and contradicting yourself in ways that rankle readers (‘Vanessa is a villain for stealing food for her children when all these other characters get away with murder? That’s not fair!’).
3) Theme helps you choose the right setting and give it a role in the story.
In historical fiction, setting is crucial. But even the most immersive, well-researched setting can go unappreciated if it feels irrelevant to what’s happening in the story. Theme helps you answer the question of why the story happens in a particular time and place.
If you’ve yet to choose a setting, look for one rich in opportunities for the theme to reveal itself. For example, a theme statement about human behaviour in difficult times may be best suited to a wartime setting. A story with a theme about discovery and innovation might be best set in the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution. Themes of freedom can resonate deeply when presented through the eyes of someone who’s subjugated, while themes of power may be explored through the eyes of a ruler.
If you’ve already decided on your setting, try bringing out the aspects of it related to the theme. Does the world embody your theme? Or does it suggest what happens when the thematic idea is rejected by the setting’s people? For example, if your novel will include description of a wild, lawless town in the 19th century American West, will you portray this place as filthy and corrupt? Or fun and liberated? It depends on your theme. Either way, describing your setting through a thematic lens will make it come alive.
4) Theme answers the question ‘So what?’
Most regular readers have had an experience like this: You’re reading the new novel you’ve just bought, but it’s slow-going. It’s not bad in any obvious way. It takes place in your favourite historical setting. The premise intrigues you. But you just can’t bring yourself to care about the characters or what happens to them. It all feels irrelevant to your life. If you manage to reach the end, you find yourself asking, ‘All right, but… so what?’ You move on to a new book and never think about this dud again.
Writing with your theme in mind is perhaps the best way to ensure that this doesn’t happen to your readers.
Since theme connects your unique story to the greater human condition, it resonates with readers and makes them feel and think certain things about life. We relate the emotions and ideas in the story to ones we too have experienced, even if in vastly different situations.
Theme also ensures that the story adds up to something rather than simply ending because the author ran out of ideas. A story with theme has meaning.
Theme takes your novel to the next level
Do all novels make a clear theme statement? No. It’s possible to write a story without one. But if you think of the stories that have stuck with you – the ones that truly resonated with you or taught you something about life and that you look up to as paragons of storytelling – chances are, they had a compelling, well-crafted thematic statement at their core, expressed through interesting characters, settings, and plot events.
The universal nature of theme is the reason why we see our own world and experience reflected in stories with unfamiliar settings and people. It’s why classics remain popular long after the death of the audience for which they were written.
Not every novel will achieve this standard, but if you believe in your story’s potential, why not aim for it?