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 www.storyfix.com 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?