Oh, I hear the groans now! Have I just evoked hours of torturous agonizing in Lit and Composition classes, while your evil teacher stares down at your through her cats-eye glasses and demands to know what you think the theme of this short story is?
Yup. Been there, done that. But I think it’s because – and this sounds odd to say – but I think it’s because I never had theme explained to me properly. I remember when we talked about THEME, it was all in CAPITAL LETTERS, and it HAD TO MEAN SOMETHING BIG AND IMPORTANT and IT WAS LIFE AND DEATH, and if we didn’t get the THEME OF THIS STORY, we were DOOMED.
For me, the problem was . . . no one ever seemed to take the time to explain what theme actually meant. It was esoteric, mysterious. To get ‘theme’ meant you were inducted into some mystery cult like the Illuminati, where copies of romance novels (which, of course, could not possibly be good enough to have THEMES) were sacrificed on bonfires. And if you didn’t get theme . . . well, you weren’t good enough. You hadn’t thought about it enough. You were either lazy or dumb.
So yeah. I hear you. Theme = Bad.
But this past week, I had two encounters with the idea of theme that made me reconsider how I look at it – and maybe, just maybe, start to overcome those years of antagonism and consider it . . . something I can actually use.
The first was from one of my favorite books, Writing the Paranormal Novel by Steven Harper. Yes, this is a book about writing paranormal novels (which I’m sure is right now giving that high school Lit teacher a heart attack). But as Harper points, out themes are going to be part of your novel anyway, so you may as well learn to recognize them, harness them, and utilize them. As he puts it:
The story is what happens, one event building on another. The theme is the idea your book explores. It can be a big concept like love or death, or war or choices, or it might be more specific, like defying authority or loss of love, or restriction of choice. Once a big idea appears, it usually needs to be narrowed even more. This is what the book is saying about the big idea. It can – and should – be extremely specific, like no one finds his dreams, or Death finds everyone . . .
See? Isn’t that easy?
Take any good young adult novel, and themes abound. Divergent, for example – to me, the larger theme is conformity; the book’s take on that is, challenging conformity and daring to be yourself. The Harry Potter books take on several themes – death, the search for immortality, doing what you know is right, friendship.
This week, on her Facebook page, Diana Gabaldon also wrote about theme. She had written for a long time without focusing on a theme in her novels (and of course, that didn’t do a thing to deter sales!), but then realized that even if she hadn’t been conscious of it, the themes had appeared anyway. In this post, she sums up the theme of each of her novels in one word, and then explains. But, as she says,
Still, the general notion of a theme is sometimes useful to a writer, in that it influences both the content and the organization of your story. Not always—or even often—in a deliberately conscious way, but it’s there. And once you’ve assembled most of a book, you really ought to be able to tell someone who asks what the theme is.
This is also something that Harper says – even experienced authors may not be aware of the themes in their novels. But themes aren’t just there so that some future high school student can be tortured into discovering them. No. As Harper points, out, themes are there to strengthen your novel. Even if you’re unaware of it, you’re probably infusing theme into your work right now. It may even have something to do with your own life – something you’ve been through, or something you’re going through. Both Gabaldon and Harper advise you to think about that for a moment. If you can identify the them of your novel, how can you work it into your novel even more? Can you change a scene or two, or perhaps tweak a subplot, to magnify and reflect the theme?
Harper says “It’s much better if a theme is developed on purpose. That way, the disparate elements in the story will point toward that theme in a more unified, careful way . . .” In other words, once you identify what your book is about, you can find small ways to bring it out even more (though hopefully without it hitting people over the head with a sledgehammer).
I was thinking about this in relation to my own novels.
When I was first starting with Nicky, my rumrunner, I thought about the theme of being an adult – what does it mean to be an adult? When can you call yourself one? What happens when the adults in your life just aren’t? But there’s another theme as well – secrets. Everyone’s keeping them, Nicky most of all – or so he thinks, anyway. With those things in mind, I can think about scenes that have yet to be written, and consider how they might support those themes.
With my urban fantasy series . . . Book 1 is about betrayal. That’s my overall Big Theme. Erin is betrayed by her boyfriend and her family. Rebecca is betrayed by her husband and the people she trusts. I suppose the smaller theme could then be – how do we handle betrayal? Is revenge ever the answer? With Book 2, it feels like my Big Theme is simply survival. But there’s also the issue of trust. Who can Erin trust? Why can/should she trust them? Can she trust anything, even herself?
What this does – for me – is help me solidify in my own mind what these novels are about. If we take the issue of trust in Book 2 – I can see several ways to expand that as I go into my rewrites. I already know the points where we touch on it. Can I expand them a bit? Can I add the theme as an undertone to scenes I have yet to write?
So if you were one of those students, like me, who never quite got THEME in school, I hope this may have helped. I’ve included a link to Diana’s Facebook post from last week as well.