Why do you write? Is it because it’s fun? Is it because you want to make money? Do you want to be famous, with lines of people waiting to get your signature on their hardcover edition of your novel?
I write because I have something to say.
Writing because it’s fun is a waste of time. Writing because you want to get rich and famous is irrational. To write well, you must write with a satisfactory purpose. This is where theme enters the stage. Theme is the underlying topic of your story. It’s your personal message to the reader. When the reader turns the last page, they’ll be forced to think about your theme and its implications. Novels worth their word count will leave an imprint on the mind of the reader through the theme.
But first: why do you need a theme in your story? Can’t it just be entertaining? Novels that lack a definable theme are not worth the time they take to read. They are like a huge pile of marshmallow fluff: tasty, sweet, and completely unsatisfying. Unless you want to write a forgettable story that only serves to dull the mind of the reader, please include a theme.
Stories that contain a strong theme are always thought-provoking and meaningful. Unfortunately, poor literature and films have given themes a bad name. These stories contain themes that are thought-provoking and worthy–but they aren’t delivered correctly. The themes are shoved at the audience and often include some type of altar-call, creating a preachy effect where the audience is left gagging at the message that was forced down their throats.
So how do you include a theme without being preachy?
The theme needs to be subtle enough to disallow a sententious story-line, but clear enough to force the reader to think. It sounds more complicated than it is. To keep from delivering a preachy theme, don’t include any obvious challenge to the reader. Don’t explicitly state your theme, or include a paragraph of prose or character dialogue praising it. To convey a clear theme, do make the story revolve in some way around the theme. Do allow the theme to affect the characters and their transformation arcs.
As a writer, you walk a fine line between entertaining and challenging. Themes must be dealt with subtly, or the reader will set down the book in irritation at the sermons. My favorite way of developing theme is through characters. You can expose the theme through their actions, reactions, dialogue, and the way they view the world. For example, if your theme is courage, you can display the theme in the journey of a cowardly character who learns to be brave. A theme can be displayed through a character’s value as well.
Theme can also be portrayed through plot. Like I stated before, your plot should revolve in some visible way around the theme. If you’re writing a theme of friendship, you should probably include a point of conflict in your plot where the value of friendship is demonstrated (through conflict, contrast, etc). My novel Virago is centered around a few themes: honesty, sacrifice, and love. The main conflict in the plot comes from a character’s dishonesty. Through the revelation of the character’s lies, the heroine learns how much her family sacrificed to keep her safe–and thus learned that love is worth the sacrifice.
If you’re having trouble thinking of a theme on your own, here’s a list of commonly used themes to prompt your imagination.
Coming of age
Compassion (vs apathy)
Humility (vs pride)
Illusion of control
Knowledge (vs ignorance)
Pain of war
Political (capitalism, socialism, fascism, etc)
Power of words
Seven deadly sins (avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, wrath)
Unpredictability of the future
When picking your theme, choose one that means something to you–your passion will seep between the lines and bring the values to life. Remember to keep it subtle, but clear.
You have something to say, so say it.