Do you remember those high school literature test questions about the novel or story you read for class? Perhaps the most daunting one was, “What was the theme?” You knew what happened and who did it, where it took place and how it ended. But the theme? The “aboutness”? It’s not always easy pick out.
Likewise, you can write the first draft of your story and then sit back and wonder: what’s this really about at its core? Most authors start out with a nebulous idea of the theme of their tale. Yet, rewarding fiction has a theme without shouting about it.
So, what is a theme and how do authors work with theme?
In “Notes on Novel Structure” Douglas Glover says,”Theme as a general usable statement of the author’s belief about the world and human nature. A theme is usable if it incorporates a statement of human desire and a further statement about how the world works to thwart or interfere with that desire.”
John Gardner, one of the best authors to write from a monster’s point of view, gave this sage advice in The Art of Fiction, “Theme, it should be noticed, is not imposed on the story but evoked from within it—initially an intuitive but finally an intellectual act on the part of the writer. The writer muses on the story idea to determine …why it seems worth telling to achieve art—fiction as serious thought.
You don’t start out with a theme necessarily but one will bubble to the surface. How can you as an author determine what your theme is?
•What is my story about? Can I think of a word or idea—like forgiveness, innocence, power, struggle, love, betrayal—that might sum up the story’s “theme?
•Why should readers care about this story? What does it offer them that touches on universal experience?
•What does the story have to say about the central idea?
•What attitudes or judgments does it hint at? What is it saying about how the world works?
Few authors begin with the solid theme. Most begin with a character, a setting, a plot.
One thing I grapple with is helping my publisher convey the spirit of my books. They deal with serious themes–struggle against authority and science for good vs evil. But they poke fun at the absurdity of them.
I’m pleased about the icons in the newer versions of my novels because they are cute and help convey theme.
For example, Mixed In is about autonomy–scientific, cultural, and reproductive. Here’s the icon:
Lost in Waste is about work and consequences of scientific expansion without responsibility to the environment. It’s about greed, pig sh** and pollution and the overcoming power of love.
Wrinkles in Spacetime is about identity–scientific and personal– across time, space, and society.
A theme helps hold a story together, but does it matter if a reader catches the theme? I once had a student who claimed you couldn’t go wrong in Poetry Class by saying the theme of a poem was either sex or death. Another time, I thought the poem Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening was about a busy person taking a moment to see nature’s beauty but the teacher claimed it was about suicide. Clearly, a theme doesn’t need to hit the reader over the head, be noticed by the reader, or agreed upon by different people. Readers can make their own themes, which is some of the beauty and mystery of great literature. But if you, the author, write towards theme, it will help focus your work of art.
As I ramp up getting ready for the release of Wrinkles in Spacetime, I’m having a prize giveaway over on Facebook. Do you ever go there? Here’s the link:
I’d like to thank Amy Hassinger for being an excellent teacher in a workshop about writing towards theme.