Defining your theme
The theme is the central idea(s) which underlie a work of fiction. It is nothing as crude as a ‘message’ (which, if too obvious, will detract from good creative writing), but combines the wisdom, the moral, the paradigm or thesis you explore within your story.
The greatest novels include a number of inter-related themes: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for instance, manages to look at marriage, gender politics, property, class and social hypocrisy within an apparently light-hearted comedy of manners. But an over-arching theme linking all the others is that love overcomes pride (and prejudice).
In To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee examines love for people, the importance of living things and tolerance of others’ beliefs – but the key theme is southerners’ lack of acceptance of black emancipation.
You may start your story with one theme in mind and find that others emerge as you progress.
You might not even recognise an issue you have addressed until you come to revise and edit your work. The value of distinguishing themes at this stage is that they provide you with a structure for sharpening the relevant and cutting the unnecessary elements of your story.
Some novelists claim not to think about theme before writing; they prefer to concentrate on telling a good story and see what emerges. However, every writer has interests, opinions, biases and attitudes, whether conscious or unconscious, which influence what they write; whether you are aware of them or not, your own experience and knowledge create themes in your work.
Not to do so can produce some unintended and unwanted consequences: if you are a less experienced writer and pursue your plot without keeping an eye on your underlying theme, it could materialise as trite, passé or overly ‘messagey’; equally, without holding a theme in mind, you might leave your readers confused by characters and events that lack a coherent authorial perspective.
If you have come to this project with an issue you want to explore, you need to make sure your novel expresses what you want it to. Most importantly, though, a solid thematic structure is a major organising force in fiction, giving it depth, resonance and emotional impact. A well-developed theme is as valuable to your novel as character and plot.
Start a new page in your project ‘bible’ and head it Theme.
If you already know your main theme, summarise it in a single sentence. If you are also able, add sentence-long summaries for your sub-themes – which should all have some link to the main theme.
If you are not yet clear about the theme(s) of your story, go back over your one-page plot outline and ask yourself:
- “What does the reader know at the end of this story that they didn’t know at the beginning?”
- “What lessons emerge from the key incidents in this plot?”
- “Where does the story highlight different sides of a single position?”
Read back over your Character descriptions and enquire of each person:
- “What do you learn as a result of your journey in this story?”
- “What viewpoints do you represent – and does it change by the end?”
- “Which other character(s) do you agree and disagree with, and what will the tension between you reveal to the reader?”
The answers to these questions may take some time to emerge but, as they do, make notes about them on your Theme page. Highlight key actions, interactions and events in the plot line. Make notes of where the attitudes of different characters originate. Refer back to your notes on Setting and consider historical period and culture.
This is a good time, before you start writing, to clarify your themes and perhaps to tweak your plot outline and characters in response.
Next week we will start to develop a full chapter breakdown.
Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…
“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus Lucy’s novels here