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?
Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions!
Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where 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, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.
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