Thoughts on Theme

Developing a theme is one of the most crucial aspects of fiction writing. It’s not enough to write a story that grabs the reader, moves at a brisk pace, features rising action, and ends with a bang. Readers expect a story to do more. Readers remember stories that tackle larger issues: good and evil, love and hate, justice and injustice. Novels must be about something. That something is called the “theme.”

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass puts it this way, “When [readers] run across a novel that has nothing to say, they snap it closed and slap it down—or perhaps hurl it across the room.”

Stephen King, in his book, On Writing, acknowledged that writing classes can become preoccupied by theme. “If you write a novel, spend weeks and then months catching it word by word, you owe it to the book and to yourself to lean back (or take a long walk) when you’ve finished and ask yourself why you bothered—why you spent all that time, why it seemed so important. In other words, what’s it all about, Alfie?”

King went on to make an important point. “Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language (they call it prose for a reason, y’know) but it seems to me that every book—at least every one worth reading—is about something. Your job in the first draft is to decide
what something or somethings yours is about. Your job in the second draft—one of them, anyway—is to make that something even more clear.”

Larry Brooks of put it this way: “Theme is what your story means. What it’s about. It’s the story’s real-life relevance and its commentary on the human experience…Theme is love and hate, crime and punishment, good and evil, chaos versus order, natural versus synthetic, old versus new. Theme is the pursuit of something good, the consequences of something bad, and how the results come to pass in the lives of the characters in the story.”

I stumbled upon Holly Lisle’s blog post on theme and she wrote eloquently about it: “When you’re creating fiction, at heart you are searching for ways to create order in the universe…You are digging into your core beliefs on how the world works, and running imaginary people through
a trial universe built on these believes to see how the people and the beliefs stand under pressure.”

So how does a writer go about developing a theme?

  • Ask yourself: what are the larger issues your story is about? Some writers identify a theme before they begin writing a novel. Others figure it out as they go along.
  • When your theme becomes apparent, every element of the story—setting, characters, action—should work in support of your theme.
  • Themes are about moral issues or larger truths about the human condition.
  • The main character should buttress and embody your theme.
  • The action should re-enforce and advance the theme.
  • The resolution of the main character’s dilemma should validate your theme.
  • Your theme should emerge organically and grow out of the story. Writers should not have to get preachy to make the theme
    apparent to the reader.
  • Develop and hone your theme during the revision process.

How do you develop themes in your novel? Do you start with the theme or does it emerge as you write?



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5 responses to “Thoughts on Theme

  1. Your bullet point check list is exactly how it works for me. I begin with a basic concept, hang a plot on the concept and the theme grows out of the writing process. My current story, about a “good” girl moving toward prostitution, began with one theme and ended up with another. Why? Because the story took off in a slightly different direction and developed a new ending that I didn’t expect when I wrote the first words. The new ending justified changing the theme. Or actually, it DID change the theme. And then I changed the title.

    I don’t “apply” a theme to a story. My life experiences and attitudes subconsciously SHAPE the scenes and characters as I write them. It’s like the operating system of a computer. It’s hidden, but it influences all the programs it runs. Generally speaking, the theme becomes more apparent as I write the DETAILS of the scenes. Then I’ll do another pass to support that theme, and build on it with more details, as you described in this essay.

    But one has to be careful to be subtle with the theme. Otherwise the story will become too “preachy.” The theme should not be directly stated. It should be felt and learned through the experiences of the characters.

    • Irv,
      Thanks for sharing your process. That kind of describes the way I work. When I wrote my first novel, Small Change, I had no idea what the theme was. The theme did not reveal itself until I was .
      almost finished with the first draft. It became apparent through a line of dialogue that the main character’s mother said on her deathbed: “Every family has secrets. It’s what keeps families together.” That was my “ah-ha” moment. The whole story revolves around family secrets and the fact that family members keep secrets so they won’t hurt other people, but they end up hurting them anyway by not confronting the issues. I also agree with being subtle about the theme. It’s annoying when an author gets preachy. Thanks again.


      • The idea of keeping secrets from those you love in order to “protect” them, is a theme that seems to run through most of my stories. And that’s because it happens so much in “Real Life,” that when writing about “real Life,” that situation keeps coming up again and again. I find truth and honestly lacking everywhere. And when I do find it, or a person expressing it, I tend to cling to that source of truth!


  2. Nice post – all good advice Chris. The theme of my first novel is a family’s struggle with death. Now as I work through the revisions, the theme is becoming more specific to each individual and how the interact amid conflicting values. New details are developing, a few surprises too which is great in the moment but they change the playing field. As such, I find my theme is changing too, there’s more underneath. I’m still mining.

    • Nancy,
      Thank for sharing your experiences. What you described is similar to my experience with my first novel. The theme did not become apparent to me unitl the end of the story. Then I went back and made revisions to further develop the theme. Thanks again and, by the way, you have a nice blog. Good luck with your current project.


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