What Is Theme & Why Does It Matter?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary's definition, theme is "the subject of a piece of writing."

Now, that might be factually correct (who am I to argue with the dictionary people?), but it's still not helpful to anyone just starting out in novel writing who's trying to work out what theme actually is.

The "subject of a piece of writing" suggests "subject matter" – and a novel's subject matter is something concrete and tangible, like a mission to Mars in a science fiction novel or a bank robbery in a crime novel.

Theme, on the other hand, is not tangible at all. It can usually be boiled down to a phrase like "grief" or "unrequited love" or "blind faith" – something abstract like that. So here's my own definition...

Theme is what the concrete events of a novel mean.

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Let's look at an example...

A coming-of-age story is "about" a boy or a girl coming face to face with a situation they've never experienced before – drugs, sex, death, the need to earn money, and so on. So you could write a novel about a girl's struggles following the death of her father...

Everything that is concrete in this novel (the characters, the places, the events) all sit on the surface. If you shot a movie of the novel, the "who," "what" and "where" could all be captured by the camera and projected onto a screen for the audience to see and hear.

Theme, on the other hand, happens beneath the surface. The camera wouldn't pick it up because theme is abstract, not concrete. But it's still there in the form of the lesson that the surface story teaches us (and the characters), or the conclusion that can be drawn from the concrete events.

If all of this is sounding vague, that's because theme is vague – or at least difficult to pin down. But we're slowly edging closer to a more concrete definition...

What is theme? It's the deeper layer of meaning running beneath a story's surface.

Still confused?

Then I'll try to un-confuse you by looking at a love story featuring two characters called John and Sarah...

  • John works in a bank. He's never had much luck with women, and he can't believe his luck when Sarah, the smart and stunning new employee, seems like she's interested in getting to know him better.
  • They date, share their first kiss, all the usual stuff – but John still can't understand what Sarah sees in an ordinary guy like him. She tells him she loves him, but John can't quite believe her.
  • When Sarah starts taking evening classes in cookery, John becomes increasingly suspicious and one night he follows her, convinced that she's seeing someone else. But she is taking a class, just like she said. And when Sarah realizes that John has followed her, she dumps him. End of story.

Now, everything I talked about in the bullet points above was on the story's surface – the characters, plot and setting, in other words. I didn't mention theme once, but it's there nevertheless.

How you choose to interpret the meaning of a story is often a matter of opinion (different readers can take different things away from fiction). For me, the lesson to take away from the John and Sarah story (or the conclusion to be drawn from it) is simply this...

Love without trust can never work.

Is that original? Nope. Is it a profound philosophical insight? Heck, no! But everything sounds trite when you boil it down to a single sentence. You'll have far more space to explore your theme than I have had here, and you'll be able to do it far more subtly, too.

Speaking of subtlety, let's add some nuance to our definition of theme...

So far, we've defined theme as being what the events of a novel "mean." The plot (and associated characters and settings) sit on the surface of a story. Theme runs beneath the surface.

Now think about it from a reader's perspective...

  • The surface storytelling satisfies the reader's need to escape and to be entertained.
  • The sub-surface "meaning" of the story satisfies their need to draw a lesson or a conclusion from the events, thus furthering their understanding of the human condition.

Now, this "understanding of the human condition" does not need to be psychological in nature. It can be political, sociological, whatever you like. Only ever write about issues that interest you, and preferably because they've affected you directly in your own life. It's like the horror writer Dean Koontz said...

Theme is a statement, or series of related observations, about some aspect of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author.

If you don't feel all stirred up by your chosen theme, your "statement about some aspect of the human condition" will sound hollow. If a theme does mean something to you, and if you make sure that you "interpret it from your unique viewpoint" (rather than giving us the common accepted wisdom), readers will sit up and take notice, even if they're not exactly sure why.

Here's my final definition of theme...

Theme is the deeper layer of meaning running beneath the story's surface. While the surface story entertains the readers, the theme helps them to reach a new understanding of some aspect of the human condition.

Or to put it another way...

  • Novels are essentially about people (fictional characters) undergoing experiences (plots) in particular places (settings).
  • These experiences – their nature, and the effect they have on the characters – will cause the reader to come to conclusions about some aspect of life.
  • These conclusions are your theme.

Now that you know what theme is, sort of, let's deal with the next question...

Why Does Theme Matter?

Why bother with theme at all when all you really want to do is tell a gripping tale?

That's a perfectly understandable point of view. But you need to trust me on this...

If you aspire to be a novel writer of any merit (i.e., one that readers love), you must take theme seriously, no matter what type of fiction you plan to write (literary, genre or mainstream).

There are three good reasons for that, and I'll run through them in detail below. (Even if you discount the first two, the third is non-negotiable!)...

1. Theme Adds an Extra Dimension to a Novel

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

  • Take a sip of inexpensive wine. It will be pleasant enough while it lasts, but the flavor will be gone almost immediately after you swallow.
  • 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'll still taste it on your palate an hour later.

Applying that to fiction...

If you write a thriller, say, with well-rounded characters, a page-turning plot but no theme, the novel might be a "good read" but you'll soon forget it.

But if the novel, on a deeper level, is also an exploration of "solitude" (or 1,001 other things) it won't merely be a good read. It will also provide the reader with something to think about, something that will stay with them long after they have finished the final chapter.

2. Theme Is Curative

I'm being serious – meaningful writing really can cure you. Everything that has affected you profoundly, for good or bad, 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. As Dianne Doubtfire said...

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.

If you've undergone a painful experience (and who hasn't?), writing about it in a novel can help you to process everything you are feeling.

I don't mean writing about what happened in a literal way (writing purely autobiographical fiction is rarely 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 to leave them behind you as you move on.

This will not only prove curative for you, it will also help to cure the readers of your novel.

3. Theme Allows You to Tell a More Focused Story

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

Hopefully, the two points above are more than enough reason for you to take theme seriously when you plan and write your own novel. If not, this third point will...

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

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

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

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

I'll talk about this more as we dig into the "how to" details...

How to Add Theme to a Novel

So far, we've talked about what theme is and why it matters. But how the heck are you meant to incorporate theme into your novel?

The first thing to say is that adding "theme" to your fiction doesn't require much work. In the early stages of the novel writing process, you simply need to decide what the theme is going to be, then spend a while chewing it over in your mind (or on paper)...

  • How do you feel about it in your heart?
  • What do you think about it in your head?
  • If the theme is a problem that needs solving, what's the solution?
  • Are there several potential solutions?
  • How does your actual experience with the theme differ from the accepted wisdom on the topic? How is it the same?

And so on and so forth. When you're through, forget about theme and it will work its way into the novel's bones without you even being aware of it.

Yes, theme is important in fiction. But the way to achieve this "deeper layer of meaning" without writing a clunky novel is to put theme second. Trying too hard to make the characters and the events somehow fit your "message" is to put theme first.

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

  • First, you "prime your brain" by thinking about your theme in detail.
  • Then you forget about theme, at least at a conscious level. Subconsciously, though, your instincts will tell you whether the story is on track or not.

Bottom line?

Taking some time now to chew over your theme is like making a pact with yourself. The pact goes something like this...

These are the issues I want to explore in my novel. I've laid out my thoughts as clearly as I can, but I'm still not entirely sure how they will help to shape the characters and the events. That's okay, though...

I understand that things will become clearer as I "test" my theme by throwing my characters into situations that relate to the theme.

I don't want to write a clunky "message" novel, or make it sound like an academic paper for Philosophy 101, so I'm going to forget about the theme now and concentrate on telling a good story. I know that my instincts will let me know if my novel is losing focus.

And you've got to mean it. Once you've taken the time and effort to "sow the seeds of theme" in your brain, you need to let go and trust in the magic. Your subconscious will guide you as you write a focused novel that has a deeper layer of meaning in the form of a theme.

Need more help with theme?

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