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Monday, February 11

Theme Me Up: How to Develop Your Theme

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Several years ago I attended a workshop on theme. It was a fascinating session, because the presenters were romance author Suzanne Brockmann and English professor and literary critic, Sarah Frantz, who studies romance in general, and Brockmann in particular. To see what the reader took away from the book versus what the author intended was quite interesting. They were similar, but not always exact. And that's okay, because everyone takes away something different from a book.

Some of the things they said made me look at theme in a new light, and made me think about ways to discuss theme that can be directly applied to your work. Looking back on this, I can see how theme has become a much bigger part of my writing process, because a great book is about something, and we all want our books to be more than plots and characters.

Here are three ways theme can help you tell a richer story.

1. Theme is the Unifying Element of a Novel

We often think of theme as this big literary thing lurking in the back of our work. It's the stuff of English class and literary novels, not something that applies to commercial fiction. But it's really just the underlying "story" you're writing that connects all the pieces together. Like romance is about love, horror is about fear, mysteries are about puzzles on the grand concept scale.

If you're unsure what your theme is, trying thinking about what your novel is about on that grand scale. Not the details of the plot, not the character with the problem, but the general core concept of an idea you're exploring with that plot and character and problem. If it's still too vague to be any help, take a step closer and determine what about that concept (love, fear, etc) are you exploring. Keep taking a step closer until you find something that feels right. That's probably your theme.

2. You Can Have More Than One Theme

This really surprised me, because I always thought one book = one theme. But Brockmann uses different themes for the book, individual characters, even sets of characters. All those themes connect to form a larger idea that still fits within her core concept and works together to tell a deeper tale.

Try looking at your characters. Is there repetition of ideas there in the types of problems they need to solve? Again, not the details, but the concepts. Are they all trying to find love for example, or overcome personal fears. Look at your setting. Does it provide a metaphoric backdrop -- intentional or not? If you keep seeing the same ideas turn up over and over, there's a good chance you have themes working there.

3. Theme Can Be Found in One Word

This one blew me away. It was something so simple and really made me realize that theme wasn't a big complicated bang you over the head with it kinda thing. It didn't need to be illustrated with heartfelt monologues or purple prose metaphors. It's something that can be infused into your text on a micro level and show your concepts without screaming "Look! I'm a theme!"

Brockmann did it like this: (paraphrasing because I didn't write the exact sentence down)

A firefighter was injured, but she's okay.

She's okay. One word, one simple pronoun, and suddenly Brockmann's theme of gender equality is blindingly clear. A typically male dominated profession has a woman in it. It's subtle, it's elegant, it goes out there and does its job and you barely even notice. But it backs up everything else Brockmann does in that book and builds upon that theme.

What can you do to add or develop theme?

Let it guide you. It's another way of adding structure to your work so when you have to decide between your protagonist doing A or B, you can see which one illustrates your theme better. That'll connect to previsions scenes, and lay the groundwork for future scenes. When you have to describe, look for details that support the ideas of your novel. Let those ideas be reflected in the thoughts of your characters. The reader might not even consciously pick up on it, but by the end of the story, they'll feel like the book was about something more than just the plot.

And for you pantsers out there, theme might be the guiding light you'll love. Structure without outlines. A guide that lets you be as spontaneous as you want.

Not every scene needs to be all about theme, but using it can add layers to your story and even help you figure out what scenes can be fleshed out and what can be cut. If it doesn't support your theme at all, that might be a clue that it's taking you on a tangent or just needs more work.

Like plot is the backbone of a story, theme is the muscle. Using both gives you a story that's not only solid, but strong.

What's your current novel's theme? 

If you're looking to improve your craft, check out one of my books on writing: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel. 

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, 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 Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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  1. Fantastic post - thanks so much for sharing!

  2. This post is very timely for me, as I try to put some muscle on my story skeletons. Thanks!

  3. I love reading about themes! In our modern-day writing quest to not preach, moralize, or talk down to MG and YA audiences, some aspiring writers almost become AFRAID to discuss the themes or messages in their work for fear of looking didactic. But really, all valuable writing tells us something about the world.

    Loved "Shifter", by the by. I just wrote the "Blue Fire" release date on my calendar!!

    Rachel Heston Davis

  4. Thanks! The workshop was eye opening, and I love those sessions.

  5. Love this! Especially as a pantser. Thank you!

  6. That...was so simple!! I've never taken an English lit class in my life, so stuff like themes are vaguely known concepts for me. Now, I think I can say my theme is the influence of friendships!

  7. Interesting!!! And I think I found mine: A girl loses her family at birth, but ends up gaining family in the end. Good exercise!

  8. Good topic. My theme for my current WIP is surrenduring the life and love that we think we want to provide for the greater good. I'd say God's will but my agnostic protag doesn't even realize that God's hand is in this yet.

  9. Rachel, it blew my mind the same way. Love your theme!

    Elizabeth, a good theme and a character arc! win/win

    Ron, very nice :) And a good theme to help strengthen your conflicts, too.

  10. I like what Steven King says about theme - that it's something he figures out after the first draft, as he's working through his edits, that the theme becomes clear and he then amps it up.

  11. Great post, Janice! Thank you so much for the great advice. Being able to have more than one theme really resonated with me. I'm one of those who thought we should we only pick one. Now I'm doing a little happy dance because now that I've completed my first draft and edited the first 50 pages, I've been able to get a handle on the themes. :)

  12. No matter how serious the abuse, healing is possible.

  13. Great post! I'd say the theme of my current WIP is redemption (as in forgiveness and second chances).

  14. Hmm… The WiP I'm trying to finish, I haven't really thought about theme much. I guess it's "Family is malleable" or "Family is shaped by circumstances."

    It's rather sad, because the teenage narrator doesn't even remember her family all that well, after something that happened a few years before, and she's in a position wherein she feels as if she can't afford to let her parents, her siblings, her son into her life—despite others trying to show her otherwise.

    And what may be the saddest thing about it is she even understands that the disconnects between her and her blood relatives are pretty much her fault. :(

    The one I'll be working on after this will have a theme of "Bitterness leads to brokenness," and it'll be heartbreaking to write in an entirely different way from the current one.

    …Yeah, I tend to write MCs that aren't quite right in the head.

  15. Love what you said about themes and pantsers! Yes, I have a vague idea about my theme when I start (with my romances, the story theme is typically about how love is strong enough to overcome obstacles :) ), so when I pants my story, I know whether the scene will fit that big picture story or not.

    And as you said, characters can have their own theme too. That big picture for the characters guides my pantsing of their character arc. I often can't start writing until I have a clear picture of their themes, even though by that time I might know all the scenes of the first act. :)

    I also love how you pointed out that theme can be encompassed in the subtext. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat Beat Sheet focuses on actually naming the theme at some point, but I think your observation is more accurate. Yes, the theme will be stated, but maybe not as blatantly as we might expect.

    And with this long comment, I think you've inspired another blog post. ;) Thanks!

  16. Kirsten, sometimes that's how it works. I didn't know the theme for THE SHIFTER until that first draft was done. The new book, the theme is what came first. I think it can vary by book.

    Melinda, awesome! That's how I was, too. And individual character themes? Seriously cool. Dance away! And good luck on the versions.

    Wondering04, a worthwhile theme :)

    Nicole, one of my favorites :)

    Carradee, those types of MCs can be the most fun :) You know it's family, so that final theme might be something you figure out when you're done. You might also think about the lesson she learns (or doesn't) That lesson might be the theme. I do like bitterness leads to brokenness. Such great potential there.

  17. Oppsy I missed Jami! (how is that even possible?) I blame the cat for distracting me and making me hit publish too fast.

    Snyder has the theme mentioned by page 5 (of a script) First chapter or two in a novel. I think it can be subtle. My current WIP (the one you read, hugs again for that) has a new scene in chapter two where someone is being interrogated and asked "who are you?" Identity is mt theme, so that's my Snyder beat sheet moment :)

    I had a feeling pansters would love this :) It just *felt* like the backbone they'd use.

    And yay! Looking forward to your post.

  18. Sometimes I think I've written the same book half a dozen times. "Finding yourself" appears over and over.


  19. Terry, you know what stories appeal to you :) And there are so many stories you could write with that theme.

    1. How subtle can you be? Is it a good idea to put the theme as words in the mouth of one of your characters?

    2. Very subtle, or they can say it outright. It depends on what you want and what the story needs.

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  21. Thank you for this site! I've had plot pieces noodling around for years but never knew how to start to put things together. (Your Planning... book is in my Amazon cart.)

    As for theme: A woman takes charge.

    Once I started looking at my various scenes, it was clear they were all about her moving beyond responding to world+dog and becoming a catalyst in her own life.

    1. Most welcome! So glad this helped you :) Sounds like a good theme to plot with, too.