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Just What Is Theme in a Novel, Anyway?

soap bubble

We took an introductory look at theme last week, and saw how theme is what your story is really all about once you look beneath the plot. I postulated that theme is tied in with the writer’s passion and interests, which turns the focus away from the actual story and toward the writer’s heart. By exploring why we are so jazzed about telling a certain story, we can mine rich themes and develop them.

Too often writers don’t consider theme or even think their novel has one (or more), but I believe every story is about something more than plot. Or if it isn’t, it can and should be.

Theme is a glue that holds all the novel components together: characters, setting, conflict, plot, and well, just about everything else. It sticks it all together. It’s like yeast in dough that makes all things rise to the top, to excellence. No plot, and you have a flat “yeast-less” lump of dough. Okay, enough with the metaphors, right?

Breaking Down Theme

So maybe you’re wondering if you really know what theme is. I’ll try to break it down. Just know, as with high stakes and protagonists’ goals and the purpose of your concept, there are varying degrees to theme. Genre plays a part, certainly. Writing style as well. Some books, as I mentioned in earlier posts, are just fun rides, seemingly without any point other than to entertain. Other books practically drip with theme.

I’ve read nail-biting suspense that’s clearly been written to take the reader on a ride, so that by the end of the book it’s like climbing out of your seat on the roller coaster all shaky and nauseated. But you slap your friend on the shoulder and say, “Wow, that was awesome, dude!” Is theme an important structural element in those types of novels? Yes—or I should say, the better suspense novels will have some strong themes. And as you learn more about theme, you’ll be able to identify them easier with every book or movie or play you examine.

The Protagonist’s Goal Is the Key

Screenwriting consultant Michael Hauge defines theme as the protagonist’s outer motivation (the visible goal for the story that has a clear end point) made universal. If you spend some time thinking about your protagonist’s core need and goal, then see how it can be applied universally to people all over the world throughout the ages, you can identify at least one main theme in your novel.

In the next posts, we’ll look deeper at this corner pillar, but since I’ve been building up my argument for a while now, let me share this with you. Theme has two definitions in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that come into play here. The first: “a subject or topic of discourse.” The second: “a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern.”

This latter definition brings me back to my earlier questions. Why did you choose this premise or idea to write about? What compelled you to spend months of your life telling this particular story? What quality, characteristic, or concern surrounding your idea grabbed you and why?

Why Is Theme Important?

Why would you want rich themes? To take your story to another level. Themes turn good novels into great ones. Themes take the story you have and make it better, deeper, more meaningful, more resonating, more universal. As I said, theme is the glue that brings all your novel’s elements together in purpose and presents life in a realistic, complex way.

Life and people are not simple. Motivation is never cut-and-dried. Themes force characters (and hopefully readers) to ask questions—about life, themselves, what they believe, how they view others. Theme reflects the heart of life—and hence, the heart of a story.

Draw Your Themes to the Surface of Story

The great thing is theme doesn’t necessarily have to be completely worked out at the start—unlike the other four pillars. Even if you have some general idea of theme, and you’ve spent time asking yourself (and answering) the questions on your inspection checklist that will help make clear exactly what your themes are and how you can bring them out, you can come back time and again into your scenes to draw out the themes.

By going through your first draft with the intention of finding ways to have characters and events showcase your themes, you can add moments or heighten tension around thematic issues. You might change your book’s title to reflect or play off of theme. You might bookend your theme by working it into the first and last chapters.

Theme is like a flavor you can enhance throughout. (Some people get theme and motif mixed up, but those are two different things, and since we’ll explore motif much later, for now, if you need more clarification, read this post I wrote a while back.)

So I hope you’re starting to get a sense of what theme is all about. Next week we’ll look at how to grow themes organically in your novel so they don’t feel plopped into the story or come across as preachy, which is a bad thing.

Got some thoughts so far on theme? How important is it to you to have strong themes in your story?

Inspection checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Photo Credit: tlindenbaum via Compfight cc

One Response to “Just What Is Theme in a Novel, Anyway?”

  1. Sherry Marshall May 7, 2014 at 9:34 pm #

    I think this sentence you wrote sums it all up. ‘Theme reflects the heart of life—and hence, the heart of a story.’
    My theme reflects what is my path of heart. It interweaves love, conflict, inner and outher, spirituality, travel to remote places, meaning in life and becoming truly authentic. I look forward to your next post.

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