Imagine if you will, that your story is a ship, sailing across the ocean towards a distant port beyond the horizon. In this metaphor, the boat and the surface of the sea are your settings, providing a dynamic stage upon which the action of your scenes takes place. The captain and her crew are your central characters, and the voyage from the ship’s origin to its final destination is the plot of your novel, carrying your readers (the ship’s passengers) from the start of your story all the way to the last page.
We’re finished right? Mission accomplished and questionable metaphor complete.
Well not quite, for although we have now included all of the elements that live above the surface of your story (character, setting, and plot), there is still another level to consider. For there is still the fathomless, murky ocean itself to contend with, full of fey tides and marine life, most of which will never be directly perceived by the members of your voyage. This deeper layer of narrative, the visceral strata pulsing below the skin of your tale, is the story’s theme. Theme generally spends most of its time operating behind the scenes, but is still just as important in its own right as the other three narrative elements we have discussed in previous posts.
What is theme?
In literature, theme is an idea that appears multiple times over the course of a story, resonating with the protagonist’s inner world as they experience the events of a plot, intended to remain with the reader after the story is concluded. Or, put another way, theme is what a given story means, as opposed to plot, which is what the story is about. Theme is revealed in how a story’s narrative relates to being human, in how we connect to the larger world around us. Theme involves what a story says about life and the endless array of experiences, emotions, and interpretations regarding what it means to be human. It’s also a statement that you, the author, can make regarding the ideas that play out over the course of your story.
Theme can be a moral principle, an observation regarding human nature, or the acknowledgment of a unique aspect of the human experience (finding a purpose in life, coming of age, etc.). A theme can be a concept, a feeling, a message, or a perspective. Theme can be about growing up, growing old, or growing apart. Love and loss. Life and death. It can be about coping, changing, or unraveling. A novel’s theme can be concrete or nebulous. Subtle or get right up in-your-face. At its heart, theme is a core component of why a story is moving to a reader. Of why it makes the reader think and of why it will linger in their minds long after they leave the last page behind them. It is precisely because theme can be all of these things, that the concept of theme can be confusing to new (and even experienced) storytellers.
Theme can be a great deal harder to pin down and draw clear borders around than its companion narrative elements. This is because other building-blocks of story such as events, plot, setting, and character-interaction, all live out their lives on the surface of your tale. Things on the surface serve to entertain your reader and to fulfill their desire to escape. To provide the tension of needing to find out what happens next and the joy that comes when that tension is resolved. But lurking below the exterior of a story lies another layer of meaning. One that draws some manner of conclusion regarding the human condition, revealed through the changes that occur within the inner world of its characters (character arc) as well as from the consequences those individuals face as a result of their choices and actions.
Why is theme important?
Although theme is rather ethereal compared to the other core components of storycrafting, it is still important to at least wrap your head around and spend some time pondering within the context of your tale. This is because if you, the author, do not feel strongly about the theme of your novel, it will likely come off as cliché or strike a hollow note within your readers’ hearts. Conversely, if your novel makes a powerful statement about the human condition, coming from your own unique perspective, they will naturally feel a strong connection to your narrative, even if they are not aware of the reason why.
Now something as profound as “making a statement about the human condition” might sound a bit daunting right at first. After all, you most likely started writing because you had a story to tell, not because you wanted to impart some manner of deep wisdom onto your reader. It is common for a writer contemplating this matter for the first time to ask, “Do I even have anything important to say about being human?”
Allow me to assure you that you do. We all have our own unique experiences to draw from, and these enable us to share a perspective on life that others will find interesting and useful.
Bear in mind that a novel’s theme is revealed through the central characters’ journey, via the experiences they have along the way and the manner in which these events change them for better or for worse. Put another way, the core drives and struggles of your protagonist(s) should tie directly into the theme of your novel.
Theme allows a well-written story to become a powerful one, providing your characters with direction and the reader with something to care about. A strong theme enables the reader to relate to the wants and needs of your characters, as well as ensures that they will become invested in the plot’s outcome. Theme helps to build an emotional connection between your story and a reader, empowering your tale to linger with them for a long time to come, laired somewhere in their subconscious mind. Through the effective use of theme in your novel, you will create a richer, more meaningful story. One that will naturally attract readers to your world and its inhabitants, drawing them into your characters’ journey, breathlessly awaiting to see how the story ends.
I want to add here that you aren’t attempting to convince the reader of anything with your theme, as they already possess pretty much the same fundamental information regarding the human condition that we all do. Instead, you are choosing to polish a given facet of this knowledge, allowing it to resonate with the reader as they peer between the lines of your novel, reflecting a deeper truth than the events of your story themselves.
Establishing and developing theme in your novel
Now that I have described what theme is and explained just why it is so important to your novel, I am going to advise that you first think very carefully about your theme… and then to put it out of your head completely as you go about the daily business of planning and drafting your story.
This is because you don’t want to wind up with a cliché message novel, or have your prose come out sounding like an analysis for an intro to philosophy class. Once your brain has had time to absorb your theme, to knead it deeply into your own subconscious, feel free to slide your awareness of theme onto the backburner, bubbling slowly and out of the way while you craft the majority of your novel. Once you have a theme lodged firmly in the back of your mind, you can trust your instincts to let you know if your novel is communicating it clearly or losing focus. Your conscious mind can focus exclusively on character, setting, and plot as your subconscious keeps one eye on your theme.
Exercise: Identifying your novel’s central themes
Before we begin this exercise on developing your novel’s theme, I should state that what authors generally call theme can be broken into two components: thematic concepts and thematic statements.
Thematic concepts are ideas that appear frequently throughout a novel. They are often abstract ideas such as love or coming of age. Thematic concepts tend to be universal in nature, as they are directly related to the human experience. This helps a story to cross cultural boundaries and makes it meaningful to people of any age or background, as well as to future generations. While a given reader may very well not understand all of the references included in a work from a different period or region, the underling themes of a novel still help to render it more relatable. A thematic concept on its own makes no statement, it is merely an idea that comes up many times over the course of a tale.
While a story is by no means restricted to a single theme, as with so many other literary elements, less is usually more. A book will be stronger if it highlights only a few core themes or theme clusters, opposed to a piecemeal of unrelated concepts. Finally, a novel’s theme will generally be rooted in its protagonist’s needs and flaws, as well as in the obstacles that prevent them from easily achieving their goals.
Tightly bound to a novel’s thematic concepts, a thematic statement is the author’s message regarding the subject in question. The position they have taken involving the novel’s central themes. While a book can have multiple statements, one message generally tends to stand out above the rest. A thematic statement usually comments on the manner in which a thematic concept affects the human condition. Thematic statements can be summed up in one or two sentences, much like the thesis of an essay.
Examples of thematic statements include: “People are stronger together than they are apart,” or the old adage, “It is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.”
Exercise: Developing theme part 1
With that distinction out of the way, it’s time to sit and think a while about your novel’s theme. Before we get to that however, I have a little warm-up to whet your pallet. For this step, I want you to simply think about the top two or three stories that have affected you in the past. Novels that have really impacted you emotionally, changing the way you saw the world, or lingering with you long after finishing the story. Once you have a few examples ready to go, spend a few minutes attempting to identify the thematic concepts and statements central to each story. Don’t worry about trying to find the “right” answer, the point is to help you get your head wrapped around the concept of theme, as well as how it helped to make those stories more impactful when you read them.
Exercise: Developing theme part 2
For this next step, pull out a sheet of paper and first attempt to identify the main thematic concepts of your novel. This will in part be influenced by the novel’s genre and significantly impacted by the novel’s central conflict. To get started, simply start writing down any related themes that come to mind. Don’t worry about figuring out which ones are central just yet, as that should arise organically as you ponder the matter over the course the next few weeks. An easy first step is to list the emotions you want the reader to feel at the middle, climax, and end of your story, then move on to the other types of thematic concepts detailed in the examples above.
Once you have a list of several concepts that seem to fit the bill, see if you have anything to add regarding your story’s thematic statement. This is a piece of your perspective on life that you would like to leave with the reader by the end of your novel. You should be able to write a thematic statement in a single, complete sentence. If you are having a tough time, take a look at whatever ideas you have so far regarding the climax and conclusion of your story, as well as how your protagonist and their world change as a result. This is because the manner in which your characters change (or don’t) over the course of your tale is one of the primary ways in which your reader will pick up on your theme.
Final thoughts: Atmosphere versus theme
I will be covering the concept of atmosphere again and in depth later on in the drafting section of this blog, but I wanted to briefly discuss the differences between atmosphere and theme here first.
Atmosphere and theme are related in the sense that both involve what a reader might feel after digesting a piece of story. The difference is that atmosphere is the transient feelings that arise from experiencing a single scene, while theme is the lasting feeling conveyed by your story as a whole. If theme is what a reader should think or feel at the end of the story, then atmosphere involves what you want them to think and feel at key moments along the way.
Atmosphere: “What emotions do I feel while reading this scene? What are the characters feeling? How do I feel about the characters and events I am reading about?”
Themes: “What did this story make me think or feel about the world and human nature?”
We have now covered all of the major narrative components of storytelling, as well as how to develop and engage with each of them as you plan out the course of your novel. Now it’s time to put everything together for our culminating planning exercise: Creating your master timeline and plotline.