Posts Tagged ‘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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