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What Is Theme & Why Does It Matter?

What is theme in a novel?

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

  • Is it because theme is unimportant in a novel? Nope. If you want your story to touch readers, 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, no. 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 that’s no excuse for pretending that theme doesn’t exist.

No, the reason that theme is often ignored in novel writing books and courses is that it’s an abstract concept. As opposed to a concrete one, like character, plot and setting.

Character, plot and setting are the “who,” “what” and “where” of novel writing. And everybody understands what those mean. But the theme of a story (the “why”) is invisible.

Theme can be confusing, too. It should be present in a well-written novel, but not particularly obvious. It’s something you shouldn’t notice, but something you’ll miss if it isn’t there.

Oh, and how the heck are you supposed to add theme to your novel? With 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 gather your raw material and follow a plan. You can even step back afterwards and admire what you’ve 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. And you do it with a light touch, too, so that the theme is subtle. There but not there.

Confused? No need to be. This article contains everything you need to unconfuse you! We’ll start with the basics…

What Is Theme?

Theme is usually defined as what a novel is “about.” But that sounds dangerously like “subject matter.” And a novel’s subject matter is something tangible, like…

  • a mission to Mars in a science fiction novel
  • a bank robbery in a crime novel.

Theme, on the other hand, is not tangible at all. You can usually boil it down to a phrase like…

  • grief
  • unrequited love
  • blind faith.

Something abstract like that. So I prefer to define it as what the concrete events of a novel mean. Think of it like this…

If you shot a movie of a novel, the characters, events and places could all be captured by the camera and projected onto a screen for the audience to see and hear.

Theme, on the other hand, is invisible. The camera wouldn’t pick it up because there’s nothing to see. But it’s still there in the form of the lesson that the surface story teaches us (and teaches 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 difficult to pin down. But we’re slowly edging closer to a more concrete definition…

Theme is the deeper layer of meaning running beneath a story’s surface.

An Example of Theme

Here’s a very brief love story in the form of bullet points. It features two characters called John and Sarah.

  • John works in a bank. He’s never had much luck with women.
  • When Sarah, the smart and stunning new employee, seems like she’s interested in getting to know him better, he can’t believe his luck.
  • 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 says she loves him but John can’t quite believe her.
  • When Sarah starts evening classes in cookery, John becomes suspicious. One night he follows her, convinced that she’s seeing someone else.
  • But she’s taking a class, just like she said. And when Sarah realizes that John has followed her, she dumps him.
  • The end.

Okay, that’s not the greatest love story ever told. But it’s good enough for our purposes.

Everything I talked about in the bullet points above was on the story’s surface. The characters, the plot and the setting, in other words.

I didn’t mention theme once. But it’s there nonetheless.

How you choose to interpret the theme of a story is a matter of opinion. Different readers take different things away from fiction. For me, the lesson to take away from the story, or the thematic conclusion you can draw 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.

Entertainment vs. Understanding

So far, we’ve defined theme as what the events of a novel “mean.” The events (and associated characters and settings) sit on the surface of a story. Theme runs beneath it.

Now think about it from a reader’s perspective…

  • The surface storytelling satisfies the reader’s need for escape and entertainment.
  • The sub-surface “meaning” of the story satisfies their need to draw a lesson or a conclusion from the events. This furthers their understanding of the human condition.

Now, this “understanding of the human condition” doesn’t need to be psychological in nature. It can be political, sociological, whatever you like. Here’s a selection of issues that you might write about in your own fiction…

  • Love without trust is doomed (John and Sarah).
  • The death penalty – right or wrong?
  • The destructive nature of guilt.
  • The futility (or necessity) of war.
  • Corruption in local government.
  • How friends are more important than family (or vice versa).
  • The balance between work and leisure in modern society.

One or two of those may interest you; most will leave you cold. But that’s okay.

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 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 about people (fictional characters) undergoing experiences (plots) in particular times and 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.

Next question…

Why Does Theme Matter?

Or to put it another way, why bother with theme at all when all you want to do is tell a gripping tale?

That’s a perfectly reasonable question. But you need to trust me on this…

If you aspire to be a good or a great novelist, you must take theme seriously, no matter what type of fiction you write (literary or genre). There are four good reasons for that…

1. It Adds an Extra Dimension to a Novel

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

If the novel, on a deeper level, is also an exploration of solitude, say, it won’t merely be a good read. It will provide the reader with something to think about, something that will stay with them long after they’ve finished the final chapter.

That is the power of theme.

But it’s no good adding weight or dimension to a piece of fiction if the theme is obvious, clichéd or somehow fails to ring true.

How do you ensure that what you have to say is interesting and original? 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.” It’s something you have plenty to say about.

What you need to avoid is making your novel an exploration of what everyone else thinks about unrequited love, or what the accepted wisdom on it is. Instead, explore 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. Show people what this world looks like through your eyes.

If you don’t do this with naked honesty then writing fiction 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.

2. It Helps Readers to Understand

So far we’ve talked about how adding weight, or dimension, to a novel in the form of a theme 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’ve closed the cover.

Why does this matter?

For the simple reason that all humans seek a better understanding of life. We’re 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 in search of understanding.

We’re trying to edge closer to the heart of what it means to be human. 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’ll leave your readers unsatisfied.

3. Theme Is Curative

Seriously. Writing that has some substance to it, in the form of a theme, 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 greatest value. So never be afraid to tackle a theme that upsets you. As the novelist 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 process your feelings.

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.

Dealing with a theme in this way will not only prove curative for you. It will also help cure your readers!

4. It Helps You Tell a More Focused Story

Tolstoy: A work of art should have a focus.

Hopefully, the three points above will make you take theme seriously when you plan and write your own novel. If not, this fourth point will…

Theme acts as a novel’s “guidance system” (hence the image of a compass at the top of the article). Theme 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 Your Novel

There are three broad steps to adding “theme” to your fiction. Let’s take a quick look at each one…

1. Identify Your Theme

You do this during the idea-finding process. First, you brainstorm for themes about which you have something to say, based on your own life experiences. Then you choose the theme which best fits the characters, plot and setting you’ve selected.

So far, so simple!

(Or if it doesn’t sound simple, it will once you’ve read the article on finding ideas.)

Can a novel have more than one theme?

Ideally, you should deal with one theme only. But there can, of course, be all sorts of related sub-themes.

Suppose that the underlying message of the story is all about grief. That theme has all sorts of related issues…

  • loss
  • anger
  • guilt
  • acceptance
  • hope
  • memories
  • new beginnings.

All of these issues are slightly different. And yet they’re all linked in some way to the novel’s overall theme of grief.

Would it be acceptable to use any of the following as sub-themes?

  • shyness
  • greed
  • power.

In my opinion, no. (You may disagree, and that’s fine. Always follow your own instincts when dealing with such abstract concepts.) Start tackling these themes as well and the novel will lose thematic focus.

Bottom line? You can tackle as many themes as you like. Just ensure that they all complement each other and are related to each other.

2. Develop Your Theme

This happens after you’ve chosen an idea for your novel but before you get into the nitty-gritty of planning and writing it.

The task involves spending a work session thinking about your theme in more detail. Ask yourself questions like these…

  • How do you feel about your theme 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? Or none at all?
  • How does your actual experience with the theme differ from the “accepted wisdom” on the topic?
  • How is it the same?

As you chew the theme over in your mind, get your thoughts down on paper. You’re writing a novel, not an academic paper. But for now pretend that you are researching a paper.

You might find that you have a clear solution to the problem presented by the theme, or no solution at all. (Having no solution is fine. It’s the writer’s job to raise questions, not necessarily to answer them.)

More likely, you’ll have mixed feelings about your theme, seeing it from several different perspectives. Again, that’s fine. In fact, it’s ideal.

Another Example

Let’s say that your theme is something to do with “truth”…

At the start of your novel, the main character tells a big lie, one with far-reaching consequences. The plot then deals with the nature of those consequences.

You, the author, have mixed feelings about telling lies…

  • On the one hand, you know it’s wrong to lie to those you love.
  • On the other hand, you know that telling the truth can sometimes cause massive hurt.
  • Ultimately, you believe that whether you lie or whether you tell the truth in certain situations, bad things are going to happen either way. So anyone who believes that there’s a simple answer just isn’t living in the real world!

That’s quite vague. Your own notes on your theme will be longer and more detailed (and true to yourself, of course). But you get the idea.

How do you work these mixed messages into your story? You give different aspects of the theme to different characters in the novel…

  • One of the characters can be adamant that telling lies is wrong under all circumstances.
  • Another character can think the opposite – that lying is sometimes justified.
  • The main character, like the author, will be far less certain.

The idea, then, is to throw these characters into a situation (the plot) which tests their beliefs.

You, the author, may not even know how it all turns out when you begin. But as you develop your plot and your characters, the “moral” of the story and the way that it ends will eventually become clear to you.

If you believe that all sounds a bit mechanical, you’re right. And that’s why you need to deal with theme with a light hand, not a heavy one.

What’s the best way to do that?

3. Forget About Theme

Seriously. Once you’ve spent a work session thinking about theme and getting your thoughts down on paper, put your notes away and forget about them.

Yes, theme is important. But how do you achieve this deeper layer of meaning without writing a clunky “message” novel? You 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 develop and write the story.

When you turn to the “concrete” elements of your novel (characters, plot and setting), theme will automatically guide your decisions, whether you’re consciously aware of it or not.

That’s what I meant by theme acting as an “internal guidance system” for your novel. And it’s why developing your theme is one of the earliest steps of the overall novel writing process.

First, you “prime your brain” by thinking about your theme in some 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 the time 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 it.

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 mind, 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 strong theme.

You may also like: Symbolism: Another Way to Add Meaning to Your Story.

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