How To Choose and Build a Powerful Theme for Your Story
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There are many approaches to theme.
While literary novels are built on the foundations of their themes, many genre writers struggle to embrace all that a good theme has to offer. For those who write to thrill or entertain, discussing theme often brings to mind images of authors using their fiction to beat readers over the head with some sort of message. Preaching from the pages, if you will.
Today, I'm here to not only combat this misconception, but to teach you how to choose a powerful theme that you can easily integrate into your novel — one that will make your story all the more spectacularly memorable.
So, what is theme?
Theme is a powerful tool in every writer’s arsenal. It's the statement that you, as the author, make about the topics your book discusses. (And no, it doesn't have to be preach-y.)
A book’s theme is often derived from the emotional development of its characters or from the consequences those characters face as a result of their external actions, but more on that in a bit. What's so great about theme?
By making good use of theme in your novel, you create an emotional connection that attracts readers to your characters, one that hooks readers into your character’s journey and leaves them with a book hangover long after they’ve reached The End.
When done well, theme isn’t used to smack your readers over the head with a message. Rather, it’s what readers can draw for themselves by reading between the lines, by learning lessons and experiencing consequences alongside your main character(s) throughout the story.
Identifying your novel’s themes
What writers commonly refer to as “theme” is comprised of two elements: the themes themselves and the thematic statement the author makes about those themes. Let's begin by discussing theme.
“Theme” is technically defined as a central topic discussed in a literary work. A theme on its own makes no statement. It’s simply an idea frequently highlighted throughout a book. Take, for example, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Can you guess its two most popular themes?
While a novel isn't limited to just one theme, it is best to choose just a few in particular to highlight. You can make a point of choosing these themes during the pre-writing process, or you can take a look at your latest draft, identify common concepts, and amplify them in drafts to come.
Need another example? A few prominent themes in my current work-in-progress, The Dark Between, include the coming-of-age experience, fathers, and mental health.
Other common examples in literature include: the circle of life, chaos and order, empowerment, happiness, greed, fulfillment, love, light versus dark, injustice, hope, war, and so on. Here’s a fantastic list for even more examples.
Identifying your novel’s thematic statement
After identifying the prominent ideas your novel will discuss, it’s time to think about the second side of the thematic coin: your thematic statement.
A thematic statement is what's typically considered a novel’s “message”. It can be defined as the stance an author takes on their book’s predominant themes. And while a novel can have multiple thematic statements, one statement usually stands out. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, Austen's biggest thematic statement is: "Holding tight to pride or prejudice can blind you to happy possibilities."
In my upcoming novel, The Dark Between, the predominant thematic statement is: “You'll never come into your own by standing in someone else's shadow.” Need a few more examples? Here's another fantastic list.
How can we build theme into our stories?
In most cases, our stories' themes — meaning their central topics — are rooted in our character’s flaws or in the obstacles that keep them from achieving their story goals. This is because our story’s thematic statement unfolds naturally as a result of our characters’ internal arcs.
Confused? Don't worry. We’re going to discuss arcs in far more detail in the weeks to come. Here’s what you need to know when it comes to theme: how your character changes (or doesn't change) as a result of the events of your story is what will allow readers to pick up on your story's thematic statement.
For example, in Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s thematic statement unravels as Elizabeth and Darcy come to recognize their character flaws and take action to overcome them, which in turn allows their love to blossom. In The Dark Between, my thematic statement comes to life as several of the main characters learn to step out from the shadows of their elders in order to begin building the lives they truly want.
Ready to integrate your own thematic statement into your story? Take a look at the main character(s) in your current work-in-progress, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Who is my character at the beginning of the story?
- What are their flaws, and what holds them back from happiness or fulfillment?
- How do the events of my story shape my character for the better or the worse?
- Do they overcome their characters flaws and the obstacles that stand in their way? How so?
- Who has my character become by the end of the story?
Once you've answered these questions, review what you've written and try to identify any themes that naturally arise. What are you trying to say about these topics?
Voila! Just like that, you've found your thematic statement — one that you've already built directly into your story. All that's left to do is to amplify it by continuing to highlight your main character's development. But more on that next week!