The Complete Guide to Theme

Leo Tolstoy: A work of art should have a focus; some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue.

Theme is one of those areas in novel writing that many guides barely mention - if they mention it at all. Why is that?

  • Is it because theme is unimportant? Nope. If you want your novel to be published, it needs a deeper layer of meaning that only theme can provide.
  • Is it because theme is something you can safely ignore - something that nobody will notice if it isn't there? Again, nope. Not if you want your novel to be the best that it can be.
  • Is it because theme is a tricky concept to pin down? Kind of, yes. But just because something isn't immediately straightforward is no excuse for ignoring it.

No, the reason that theme is often ignored in novel writing guides is that it's an abstract concept, not a concrete one like characters and plots and setting.

Theme should be present in a well-written novel, but not particularly visible - something that you shouldn't notice, but that you'll miss if it is isn't there.

With virtually every other aspect of novel writing, there are specific steps you can take to achieve your objective.

Constructing a plot, for example, is like making a house out of wood and nails. You can even step back afterwards and admire what you have made.

But theme isn't like that. You don't "build" it so much as let it emerge from your story as you write it.

You still need to give it a helping hand, of course. How? The articles below will walk you through it step by step...

What Is Theme?

Theme is frequently defined as what a novel is "about." The trouble with that, though, is that it sounds dangerously like "subject matter." So I prefer to define it as what the events of a novel "mean."

A coming-of-age story, for example, is "about" a boy or a girl learning about the adult world. In other words, it is about...

...and these things are all on the surface of the story. Theme, however - or "meaning" - happens beneath the surface. And it is essentially the lesson that the surface story teaches us, or the conclusion that can be drawn from the events.

Or here's another way to look at it...

Novels are essentially about people (characters) undergoing significant experiences (the plot).

These experiences - their nature, and the effect they have on the characters - will cause the reader to come to conclusions about some aspect or other of life. These conclusions are your theme.

Click here for a more detailed definition of theme.

Why Does Theme Matter?

I've written a separate article on this. But if you want it boiled down to bullet points, here they are...

  • Theme adds an extra dimension to your writing. A page-turning plot is great. So, too, is getting to know a bunch of interesting characters. But if your novel is also an exploration of some aspect of what it means to be alive, the story will ultimately be more satisfying. (So long as you aren't too heavy-handed about it!)
  • Theme is curative. Seriously. Many folks turn to writing because they have all sorts of thoughts and feelings and neuroses they want to get off their chests. When you DO give vent to all these issues (themes) that are important to you, you feel unburdened afterwards.
  • Theme is a novel's "guidance system." It tells you to what to leave out and what to leave in, what is relevant and what is not. (More on this lower down.)

Click here to read the full article on the importance of theme.

How to "Sow the Seeds" of Theme In a Novel

So far, so good. But how the heck are you meant to incorporate theme into your novel?

In other words, what are you physically meant to do during the step-by-step writing process to give your novel this deeper layer of meaning?

The beauty of incorporating theme into your writing is that it doesn't actually require much work at all. In the early stages of planning your novel, you simply need to decide what the theme is going to be, and then spend a while chewing it over in your mind (or on paper).

After that, you can pretty much forget about it and the theme will permeate its way into the novel's bones without you even being aware of it.

Theme is like a seed, then - it will grow all by itself. You've just got to make the effort to plant it in the first place. Here's how...

1. The Idea-Finding Stage

In the section on Finding Ideas, I suggested that although you must have a strong idea of your theme from the outset, it is only through the act of writing the novel that the theme will emerge and develop.

In other words, all you have to do during the idea-finding stage is select a theme about which you feel you have something to say, based on your own life experiences... even if you aren't exactly clear what that "something" might be.


You might think that you already know what you have to say about your theme already, but what you'll probably discover is that what you thought you believed will be altered, in small or large ways, by the process of writing your novel.

If you look at literature as a laboratory of human behaviour, it isn't until you "test" a theme, by putting characters into situations related to the theme and seeing what happens, that you will fully appreciate what you want your novel to say.

2. The Planning Stage

It is here that you will have the most work to do on theme. Even now, though, there will be very little actual work to do. You simply need to spend a session brainstorming your theme - that is, thinking about all of its different aspects and what you want to say about them.

This brainstorming is what I mean by "sowing the seeds"...

  • Before you do any detailed planning work, simply write out a page or two on the sorts of issues you want to explore in the novel. Doing this is enough to plant these issues in your mind.
  • Then, when you plan your novel in depth and write the first draft, you will naturally work your theme into the story without even thinking about it.

Also, theme will act as this "guidance system" I mentioned earlier. It enables you to develop a detailed plan that's focussed and whose elements are all pulling in the same direction.

Let's say that you decide during the idea-finding stage that your novel is about happiness - what it is, how you can come by it, how you can hold onto it.

As you plan your novel in detail, the idea is to ensure that every element - characters, setting, but mainly the events themselves - contributes in some small and subtle way to the exploration of the theme of happiness.

With such a complex theme, one with many aspects to it, you will probably use different subplots to explore these different aspects. (One subplot could comment on finding happiness through love, another on finding it through religion, and so on.)

And in order to ensure that every strand of plot, and every event within each strand, is "on message," as it were, you simply need to ask yourself as you plan and write: Is this scene or this character saying something about happiness?

If it's about something else entirely - guilt, for example - it means you've come offthe rails somewhere and must now take action to get back on course.

3. The Writing Stage

By the time you're through with planning, you will have done all the work on theme that is necessary. Well, more or less...

It might seem that you haven't actually done very much work on theme at all, merely thought a little about what you want your novel to "say" at the beginning, and then used this information to guide your decisions as you planned in depth.

But, trust me, that is all the work you need to do.

Because each of your novel's events has been selected and shaped to contribute in some small way to the overall exploration of theme, you can rest easy that the story's message will simply take care of itself during the writing of the first draft.

As a matter of fact, it's vital that you let it take care of itself. Always remember that theme in a piece of writing is beneath the surface and should largely remain invisible...

  • If you write a scene with theme at the front of your mind, it will dominate at the expense of character and action.
  • But by pretty much ignoring it, and concentrating on the people and what they do, the theme will naturally and magically weave its way into the fabric of your novel without you even being aware of it.

Why? Because you were careful during the planning stage to put your characters into situations that would subtly test some aspect or other of your theme.

I said earlier that you probably won't know what you want your novel to say until you have written it. And the moment when you work out precisely what you feel about the thematic issues contained within your novel is during the writing stage - only you probably won't be aware that you are even doing it!

You simply need to trust in the magic.

4. The Revision Stage

For the reasons stated above, there should be very little to do here. Theme will have already worked its way into the deeper layers of your story all by itself.

The only time you might need to think about theme during revision are on those rare occasions when it bubbles to the surface in a fairly obvious way. This usually happens during the lead character's epiphany, or the moment when they finally realize where they have been going wrong all this time and what they now need to do to put it right.

(You'll learn all about the main character's epiphany in the section on plotting.)

Taking a novel with "happiness" as a theme as an example...

  • It is very likely that the protagonist will be unhappy throughout most of the novel. When they experience their epiphany, however, they finally understand what happiness is and what changes they must make in their life to find some happiness of their own.
  • And it's here that theme often bubbles to the surface in the form of the character thinking about the issue directly, or perhaps talking about it to another character.

When this happens, you might want to tweak their words somewhat to better convey the precise shade of meaning you were after, or else tone it down to stop it sounding "preachy."

But, basically, you'll do best to leave theme well alone during the revision process and leave it to the readers and the critics to discover for themselves the "meaning" beneath your novel's surface.

The beauty of theme in writing is that no two people are likely to think precisely the same thing.

An Important Caveat

"All traditional novelists wish the novels they write to have thematic significance. Too often we find the would-be novelist believing that the way to achieve this is to begin with theme. This is the worst mistake he can make."
– Robert C. Meredith and John D. Fitzgerald

That quotation isn't designed to confuse you, but I appreciate that it might.

Having gone to great lengths to stress how important theme is in a work of fiction, and telling you how to handle it during each stage of the writing process, am I now saying that placing too much stock in theme is a bad thing?

Yup, that's exactly what I'm saying!

As a matter of fact, I've been saying it all the way through (on this page and in the linked articles). I just wanted to say it again to drive the point home.

Please don't think that everything I have said about theme isn't 100% true, because it is. If you want your novel to be the best it can be, you need to follow all of the advice here - simple as that.

But what you also need to do is follow the advice with a light hand, not a heavy one.

We all want our novels - whether they are genre, literary, or mainstream fiction - to be important, to say something that will stay with the reader long after they have closed the book, to be profound even.

For that reason, theme in fiction is important.

But the way to achieve this deeper layer of meaning without ruining the story is to always put theme second. Making the people and the events fit some "message" you have worked out in advance is definitely the wrong way to go about it.

Character and plot must always come first. Yes, you must select characters and situations during the planning stage in such a way that the events will be "about" your theme, and not about some other aspect of the human condition altogether.

But don't be heavy-handed about it - subtlety, subtlety, subtlety.

And once you have laid the groundwork and you move on to the actual writing, let the characters and the events go where they will.

Just as theme should remain beneath the surface of your story - there but not there - so it should not intrude on your conscious mind when you write the story.

Achieve that and you are well on your way to mastering theme in your writing.


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