Nov

20

2011

theme

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Your high school English teacher might have fed you a lot of bull about a novel’s theme being something “deep” or “difficult”, something that only Great Works of Literature possess.

I am here to tell you that all of that is rubbish.* Every novel, even novels that are not Great Works of Literature, has a theme. Some novels have lots of them. And they’re not difficult at all.

The theme is your novel’s predominant idea, or emotion. It’s what your novel is about—not at the plot or character level, but at the more abstract, intellectual or emotional level.

For example:

The Harry Potter series is about a boy wizard defeating an evil snake guy and playing a lot of Quidditch on the way. But the overarching theme of the series is love. Harry’s strength (and indeed his life) comes from the love of his parents, his friends, and his colleagues. All through the novel, love wins, and Voldemort is ultimately defeated because he can’t understand it. There are secondary themes about growing up, and finding out who you are, and probably several more. This is a single theme going across nine books, and it helps to make them emotionally satisfying. It’s not difficult, but it’s important.

So how can you find your novel’s theme?

Think about what your characters want. How they have to grow and change. Think about the sort of things they get up to, and how that shows who they really are. Jot down some single words that sum up some of the emotions they’re going through, some of the problems they face, some of the ideas they’re wrestling with.

They don’t have to be difficult words: some examples are trust, identity, loss, memory, loyalty. All of these are simple words, which portray very complex ideas.

Perhaps you’ll discover that your novel has several different themes. That’s fine. Lots of them do. But generally, your novel is going to have one theme that’s more important than any of the other ones.

Once you’ve discovered your theme, you can use it to refine your novel so that you make the theme even stronger. You can design scenes and plot events that revolve around this theme. You can use your secondary characters to embody different aspects of the theme. You can refine your language so that the theme is teased out through symbol, metaphor, setting, description, tone.

I like to define my theme very early on in my writing process. It gives me an idea to riff off of. I’ll write the theme down and keep it in mind the whole time I’m writing the novel. It keeps me focused. The theme of Getting Away With It, for example, is identity, which is why it’s about identical twins. The theme of The Summer of Living Dangerously is escape, which is why the heroine takes a job pretending to be someone else. The theme of my next book is motherhood.

Does it matter if your novel has the same theme as another novel? No way. Harry Potter‘s theme is love. So is Romeo and Juliet‘s. They’re entirely different texts, because there’s a lot to say about love.

Some themes are more suitable for certain kinds of novels than others. For example, romantic novels are often about trust, confidence, vulnerability, family, belonging, and less often about ambition, hatred, revenge, morality or existentialism.

If your theme seems to be working against your genre requirements, that could be a good thing (it’s refreshing) or a not-so-good thing (you’re not giving your readers a satisfying experience).

If you’re writing a romance, one of your themes is obviously going to be love. Try to take it a little deeper and discover another one, too; it can give your novel more scope and emotion. But remember: keep it focused, especially if you’re writing a short, commercial novel.

Your theme can give you some ideas for your title, too. Lots of novels have their themes in their title, either literally or through a metaphor: Pride and Prejudice. Crime and Punishment. The Thorn Birds. Gone With the Wind.

Knowing your theme can give you a very useful focus for writing your novel, and—when combined with a snappy plot-based pitch—for selling it. Plus, it’ll really impress your former English teacher.

Thanks to Jane O’Reilly, one of the participants on my Advanced Novel Writing course, for giving me the idea for this post. If you’d like to suggest a topic to discuss in future posts, please do!

*And I used to be an English teacher, so I KNOW.


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  1. That’s got my brain working on a Sunday morning. I can describe my theme, but not in one word.
    Will think some more. Thanks, Julie, good post.

    Reply

  2. It doesn’t have to be one word, Laura. It’s just that using one word tends to broaden it out a bit, so that you can look at different aspects of it in your novel. “Love” is broader than “love defeats the bad guy”, if that makes sense. The first is a general theme; the second is more of a message. Both of them are really important.

    In Getting Away With It, for example, my theme is “identity” but some of the messages are “everyone is unique”, “identity is distinct from memory”, “appearance isn’t reality”, “who you were then doesn’t have to be who you are now”, and more.

    In Harry Potter, some of the messages are “parents’ love lasts a lifetime”, “trust your friends and their love”, “love is more than just attraction”, “family love is key to everything”, “even hidden love is powerful”, and more.

    It’s useful to expand on your theme, too, to figure out what it is you’re trying to say with your book.

    Reply

  3. Hello Julie,
    I found this post very informative as your posts always are. I remember studying themes in English Lit at school for Jane Austen novels etc. I’ve found York notes handy for exploring themes in books such as Pride and Prejudice when doing research for my novel. Anita

    Reply

    • Yup, York Notes are big on theme, and they’re a good place to look if you’re interested in having classic novels explained to you. But really, it’s not a big mysterious English Lit thing. It’s just the topic that you, the writer, are most concerned with while you’re writing this book.

      A lot of the time, the theme might not be something you’ve consciously chosen; it might be something that just appears all by itself as you’re writing. I think most writers would probably say that.

      But if you’re feeling that your story is a bit unfocused, or you want the extra edge in creating emotion, identifying your theme might help.

      Reply

  4. As always Julie, really thoughtful stuff. I was pondering the other day on why we tell stories, why man (and woman!) has always needed stories, and I guess you’ve answered it. The sort of themes you mention are the important things which make or break lives. So they should be important to fiction which reflects life. Thanks for the post, it’s definitely a cut out and keep one!

    Reply

    • Definitely, Cara. These are the big important ideas and emotions that affect all of us, some time or another. And commercial, genre, and popular novels address them as much as literary and classic novels do. They might do it differently, and in not such a self-aware or obvious manner, but the ideas are there.

      I’ve talked about this before, but writers tend to have favourite themes that they return to again and again—and often these are connected to important ideas and emotions that have affected our lives. One way of making your story resonant is to tap into those big emotions that you’ve felt yourself, big problems that you’ve struggled with. Readers will engage with them and your story will be more memorable.

      Reply

  5. Thank you for blogging about theme Julie – it is something I have been trying for ages to figure out. I’ve read about it so many times in various craft books but your explanation is the first that’s really made any sense. Please run some more courses soon!

    Reply

    • Of course, now I’m paranoid that I’ve made ‘theme’ so ridiculously easy to understand that I’m not actually correct any more.

      *checks English teacher credentials…glasses, red pen, dictionary of literary terms, copious notes on Shakespeare, mug of tea, strange willingness to discuss phallic symbols*

      No, they’re all still here. We’re okay.

      Reply

  6. Thanks Julie – a great post, which echoes what I’ve been working on recently … which is always comforting to a newbie! 😉

    Reply

    • Hooray! Glad it’s in line with what you’re doing, Joanna. Excellent.

      Reply

  7. Great post, Julie, on something I struggle with. Possibly because my introduction to it at school seemed to be books with the theme Life Sucks And We All Deserve To Die. This is not a theme I’ve chosen to incorporate into my books. At least I really hope it isn’t.

    The more I think over my last book I think the theme is probably Identity, individually and also in a sense of national identity. Responsibility probably has a role in there somewhere too, especially for the hero, and I know I made one character specifically embody this.

    It’s probably Identity for my next book too, but right now I’m doing edits on one where the theme seems an awful lot like Trust. In fact, if I could get Fox Mulder to stand next to me and repeat, “Trust No One,” at regular intervals, that’d be marvellous. In so many ways…

    Reply

    • Ah yes, I forgot to mention that the ‘life sucks and we all deserve to die’ theme is another that’s not so popular in romance novels.

      I can definitely see ‘identity’ as a theme in The Untied Kingdom. I like how you say you’ve made a character embody one of your themes. I like doing that too.

      And yes. Fox Mulder. What you said. Me too.

      Reply

  8. Another way finding our novel’s theme can help is in determining exactly whose story it is. Sometimes we can get block because we start wondering whose story it actually is (surprisingly often it’s not our “protagonist’s”), and we can’t find the answer. It’s only when we bring ourselves back to the novel’s theme that we realise “of course, that’s whose story it is, because that’s *their* theme”

    Reply

    • That’s a very interesting and extremely good point, Dan. Thanks.

      Reply

  9. Is theme supposed to be hard? Sorry! *runs away* I came to the conclusion that I have identity as a theme in my WIP, must be a trend (what with a heroine who’s been living under a secret identity for years, and a hero who doesn’t like the identity he’s created for himself). It was there all along, I just had no clue 😮

    I don’t think I learned about theme at school. My English A-level teacher declared that creative writing couldn’t be taught, you could either do it or you couldn’t, therefore there was no point in doing any (and I mean any at all).

    Reply

    • We English teachers do have a lot to answer for, don’t we?

      Then again…the POWER over young LIVES!!! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

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  10. Ahem. Jane, what I meant to say is, that it’s astonishing that often the theme is lying underneath our story, and we have no idea it’s already there. That’s why sometimes knowing it consciously can help you with revisions, pulling things together that are already present.

    Quite often these are things that we as writers and people are interested in ourselves. I very, very often have ‘identity’ as one of my themes, and also ‘truth’; my characters very often are pretending to be someone they’re not, in order to avoid facing the truth about themselves. I’m interested in this in real life, too—fascinated by accounts of fraudsters or hoaxers, people with secret identities.

    Of course I would never have the cleverness, guts and ruthlessness to pull this off myself…but I love to read about it.

    Reply

  11. Hi Julie, I’ve been thinking alot about theme lately so really pleased to see this discussion. My question is about theme in Harlequin M&B romances.

    I can see that in a story with only one protagonist, the theme can be the protagonist’s life lesson. (And secondary characters can be struggling to learn the same life lesson in different ways.)

    But in a Harlequin M&B romance there seems to be two protagonists — each acting as antagonist to each other. And each has to have a character arc and learn a life lesson/ change a flawed belief/modify a fatal flaw. (?)

    If these lessons are completely different, then we have two different stories and two different themes in the same story.

    So my question is: Should the H and h’s character flaws/life lessons be linked, maybe at opposite ends of a continuum? They’d start off as opposites and arc towards each other)
    eg the heroine is very cautious and needs to learn to take a few risks, whereas the hero is all about risks and needs to learn to be less impulsive.

    Or should we make one character the protagonist, make it their story and make the theme their emotional change. (And give the other a character a smaller arc not necessarily related to the main theme?)

    Reply

    • That’s a really good question, Janet. And I think that you’re right. And you’re right. :-)

      Your first option is a good one: have the hero and heroine have the same theme/life lessons, but on opposite or different sides of the same coin. Your example of a cautious heroine and a impulsive hero is a good one. Choosing two characters who face the same problems but on opposite ends of the spectrum, is a good way to have built-in conflict. And it’s a great way, too, to keep your story focused enough to stay within a 50,000-word limit.

      The second option is fine, too: centre the story on one protagonist and have the other character have a smaller arc, which may be unrelated.

      Personally, I find it’s more exciting to that little picky part of my brain that likes symmetry, to have the heroine and the hero’s themes/problems/conflicts/arcs related in some way, and yet different enough so that you’re not being repetitive. They don’t have to be exactly the opposite; they can just be at different angles to each other. This can make the story both focused, and possibly more complex-feeling than an “opposites” story.

      The thing is that theme is *related* to character arc, but it’s not the same. So even if you have, for example, a heroine who’s all about risks and a hero who’s all about caution, the predominant theme might (or might not be!) be “risk”, but you’d have other themes too, possibly “loss” or “fear” or “living life to the full” or “second chances” etc etc etc, all depending on how the story worked itself out.

      Reply

  12. Thanks Julie. That’s very helpful.
    “They don’t have to be exactly the opposite; they can just be at different angles to each other.”
    Could you give a quick example of being at different angles to each other?

    Reply

    • No problem. I should probably try to find a M&B story for this, but I’ve got a rubbish memory so I’ll do Getting Away With it instead, which is the example I used above with the theme of ‘identity’.

      Following an accident, the heroine Liza has lost her job and her sense of who she is, and when she goes back home, everyone thinks she is her sister, so she goes along with it. She doesn’t know who she is, and neither does anyone else.

      Her twin sister Lee, on the other hand, is trapped in her role at home, and needs to escape to become someone anonymous. She knows who she is, but doesn’t know if that’s right for her.

      Meanwhile, the hero, whilst comfortable in his own identity, is living a lie about his life, out of loyalty to his father. He knows who he is, but that’s not who everyone thinks he is.

      See how they’re not opposites precisely, but rather the same thing at different angles?

      Reply

  13. Thank you again Julie. This discussion is helping me so much. Once we have a theme eg identity, we’d use the protagonist’s arc to bring the story to some sort of conclusion about identity? (The moral premise)

    Reply

    • Exactly! That’s the ‘message’ I was talking about above.

      Reply

  14. […] Cohen, whose blog I’ve mentioned before, had an interesting post the other day about the importance of understanding your book’s theme. Not as in […]

    Reply

  15. Can a theme be based on emotion? Feeling emotions, learning how to express emotions, letting yourself feel them, letting other express theur emotions to you??

    Reply

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