Why the Theme of a Story Matters

Having worked out what the theme of a story is, precisely, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. Why bother with theme at all when you really just want to spin a good yarn?

Trust me, if you aspire to be a novel writer of any merit, you must take theme seriously, no matter what type of fiction you plan to write (literary, genre or mainstream).

There are three reasons for this, and I will discuss them below. (Actually, there is a fourth, more practical, reason why novel themes matter, but we will get to that later.)

1. Theme Adds Dimension to a Story

The difference between a story lacking a theme and one bursting with meaning is like the difference between cheap and expensive wine. You can try this for yourselves...

Take a sip of cheap wine and, although it will be pleasant enough while it lasts, the flavor will be gone almost immediately after you swallow.

But do the same thing with a fine wine (I've worked in the trade so have been lucky enough to taste the world's best) and you will still taste it on your palate an hour or more later.

If you write a thriller, for example, with well-rounded characters and a page-turning plot but no theme, the novel might be a "good read" but it will soon be forgotten.

But if the novel, on a deeper level, is also an exploration of diplomacy vs. aggression, say, it won't merely be a good read but will also provide the reader with something to think about, something that will stay with them long after they have finished the final chapter.

That is the power of the theme of a story!

But here is the thing: it is no good adding weight or dimension to a piece of fiction if the theme is trite or obvious or cliched, or if it fails to ring true.

How do you ensure that what you have to say is interesting and original? Simple: You've just got to shoot from the heart.

Let's say you choose "love" as your novel's theme. That's kind of broad, though, so you narrow it down to "unrequited love" - something you have plenty to say about. What you must beware of is making your novel an exploration of...

  • What everyone else thinks about unrequited love, or
  • What the accepted wisdom on it is.

You must make it an exploration of what the theme means to you, given your own life experiences.

Theme doesn't have to be profound, but it must always be true to the storyteller. One of the most fundamental motives for writing novels is to reveal the truth as you see it, to share your life experiences and show people what this world looks like through your eyes.

If you don't do this with honesty then writing novels becomes something of a pointless exercise.

We don't always shoot from the heart in the real world, but in novel writing nothing less than total honesty will do.

Writing fiction is about peeling away the layers and revealing people and places and events for what they truly are, at least through your eyes. And to do this effectively you must always stand naked, as it were, before your readers. Because that is what readers expect of novel writers.

2. Theme Helps Readers to Understand

This isn't so much a separate point as an extension of the previous one.

We decided that adding weight, or dimension, to a novel causes the reader to think - and that thinking about some aspect or other of the human condition causes the novel to stay with the reader long after they have closed the cover.

Why does this matter? For the simple reason that all humans seek a better understanding of life. We are all on a quest for meaning from a very early age, whether we are aware of it or not.

Whenever we watch a good documentary on television, or have one of those "deep and meaningful" conversations with a friend in a bar - or read a novel, of course - we are partly entertaining ourselves and partly seeking to understand.

We are trying to edge closer to the heart of what it means to be a human and what it takes to get by in the twenty-first century world.

So if your story is light on theme, or if the theme is there but not particularly heartfelt, you can't help but leave your readers unsatisfied.

3. Theme Is Curative

I mean it - meaningful writing really can cure you! Everything that has affected you profoundly will find its way into your writing. And what has hurt you will perhaps be of the greatest value.

So never be afraid to tackle a theme that upsets you.

"Dreads and longings drive us to write, and yet, as we explore them more deeply, changing them to create a powerful fiction, they become in some mysterious way more acceptable in our own lives. This can be a rewarding and curative experience, not only for the writer, but for those readers with similar concerns."
- Dianne Doubtfire

If you have undergone a painful experience - a death in the family, say - writing about it can help you to process everything you are feeling.

I don't mean writing about what happened in a literal, autobiographical way (writing purely autobiographical fiction is never a good idea). I mean writing about the emotions behind the experience.

It forces you to bring the feelings out into the open, to analyze them, to come to terms with them - and hopefully leave them behind as you move on.

This will not only prove to be curative for you, it will also help your readers.

One More Reason Why Theme Matters

"Theme is your inertial guidance system. It directs your decisions about which path to take, which choice is right for the story and which choice isn't."
- Ronald B. Tobias

Hopefully, these three points are more than enough reason for you to take theme seriously when you plan and write your own novel.

But, as I said at the top, there is actually a fourth, more practical, reason why the theme of a story matters...

Theme acts as a novel's "guidance system"...

  • It tells you what belongs and what doesn't belong in the book.
  • It tells you which is the right way to go and which way is wrong.

If you have chosen "grief" as your theme, for example, then every scene and chapter in your novel must somehow contribute to the exploration of this theme.

If you suddenly find yourself exploring guilt or happiness instead, you have slipped off track somewhere and your story will lose focus as a result.

Next Up: Using Multiple Themes in a Novel.