In this post, we’re gonna talk about how to write books with careful attention to theme.
My first book for a Big 5 publisher was a vampire novel. The plot was a plague kills the world’s children only to bring them back as vampires. Their parents need to get them blood so they can continue surviving. The kids are vampires, but the parents in the book are the monsters, willing to do whatever it takes to keep their kids alive.
Soon after this book’s writing, I attended a Horror Writers Association event, where I caught a panel where a writer advised the audience to always try to sell the nonfiction concept. For my novel, it became a question: How far would you go for someone you love? This question became the focus of how I talked about it and helped market it.
But wait! Theme and symbolism, that’s for pretentious writers and English majors plumbing classics for hidden meanings, right?
At least, I thought so at one time. I found this prejudice getting in the way. What it took me a while to discover in my writing journey is how important it is and how I could use it to tell stories that achieve a much more powerful effect than the sum of their words. I learned I’d been using theme all along, but by not fully understanding it, I’d given up the potential to control it and use it to the story’s best advantage.
The truth is theme is not necessarily esoteric nor the product of genius but just another part of the foundation of a good story, and a tool I could use to tell better stories. Readers want it, and they respond to it. It provides writers another way to get readers to fall in love, another aspect of story that writers can control, and so I wanted to understand it better and add this tool to my writing toolbox.
This led me on an exploration of theme and the many ways it can be expressed. Since SUFFER THE CHILDREN, I’ve done three novels with Orbit, the spec fiction brand at Hachette, and each centers on a strong theme, so you could say I’ve become a believer.
And all that led me to this presentation on what I’ve learned, which I’m happy to share with you in three posts: this one on theme, the second on symbolism, and the third on figurative language. So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
First, let’s talk about theme itself.
Below is a mind map of a novel. It starts with a subject, for example a war of succession in a fantasy kingdom. This comes to live through the active drivers of character, dialogue, and plot. The more passive drivers are on the right, and these are setting, image system, and theme.
As you can see, theme is important, and it shouldn’t be confused with the subject. As for the image system, that deals with language, and we’ll get into that shortly.
So what’s theme? The dictionary tells us it’s an idea that is recurrent or pervasive in a story or other piece of art.
One way to look at theme is it’s the nonfiction concept of the book. Where a nonfiction book explicitly spells out the theme, in fiction it’s typically implicit.
Otherwise, it might be considered the story’s unifying idea, moral, or soul. It provides a way to describe the story in a single sentence. Multiple themes are possible.
Forget high school or university, where finding theme was homework.
So if plot is what happens, character is why it happens, and setting is where it happens, theme is what it all means.
In the case of our example of SHREK shown below, the theme is “you are what you do, not what you look like,” and, “if you love yourself, you can be loved and love others.”
“So what’s your book about?” This is a question all writers crave hearing but dread answering. Theme provides a simple way to describe it. Let’s take IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE as an example. Going with its premise, one might describe it: “An angel proves a suicidal man his value by showing him what the world would be like if he’d never been born.” Going by its central conflict, one might describe it: “A man battling a rich banker is shown what the town would be like if he’d never been born and learns his value.” Going with theme: “A novel that demonstrates how a single person can make all the difference in the world.”
Why theme is important
Now that we know what theme is, why should we care about it?
Theme teaches readers something about life, gives them food for thought that lasts after they close the covers, and gives them another point of engagement with the story.
For writers, it helps focus the story, can inform story choices, provides a way to test characters, and can help with marketing.
Basically, this is what we want to see happen:
Below are examples of subjects and theme. By differentiating the two, this is how you can have a ghost story about love, a spy novel about redemption, and so on.
As you can see, the theme doesn’t have to be earth shattering. A simple universal truth or belief usually suffices. It’s best if you believe it yourself and wish more people did. When you make it very simple, it can sound trite, but that’s okay. It’s still a powerful statement. Find your own twist on it to make it stand out. Maybe “love conquers all, but that means somebody has to lose,” and then write the story from the point of view of the guy who tries but fails to win his lady only to see her fall for a stereotypical romantic lead. Or maybe, “love starts as a fantasy but only stays if it’s real,” and then this guy finally wins the lady by offering a substantial, non-fairy tale relationship.
By the way, bestselling novels tend to have more than one subject. A primary one and one or more strong subordinate subjects. For example, Cormac McCarthy’s bestselling novel THE ROAD has two subjects, the apocalypse and the struggle to survive coupled with and paternal love and desire to protect one’s child, including their innocence.
How writers can use theme
Now let’s look at how you can use theme.
Whether you plot your stories or write them by the seat of your pants, identifying theme can be valuable. Either way, though, it’s best if you don’t look for theme after you write it. It often works best if one doesn’t graft it on after they’ve finished.
Also, it’s usually beneficial not to be too conscious about it. Try not to build it. Realize it as early as possible when writing your story, internalize it as a single sentence or question, and then let it express itself organically in the story using the basic tools. Trust your instincts and let what you’ve internalized guide your decisions without becoming them. Obviously, the theme should relate to the story’s character arcs and central conflict.
Theme is rarely spelled out. Trust your reader to “get it,” though they may have multiple interpretations. In some cases, you can be explicit about it if you want to. The first sentence might pose it as a question to hook the reader, for example. An Ally character might touch on it to encourage the protagonist to recognize their misbelief. Or the protagonist might realize it around the moment of final transformation.
Note if the theme is too heavy handed, though, it can upset people. They think you’re trying to make an argument rather than telling a story and letting them make up their own mind or discover its truth for themselves. So, it’s best to handle it subtly, though really, it depends on the kind of story you’re writing and what the theme is. For every writing rule, there are exceptions.
The moral choice
One way to express theme is by giving the protagonist a moral choice. In THE MALTESE FALCON, detective Sam Spade is given a clear choice of love and money versus honor and justice and chooses honor and justice, thereby thematically stating they are more important.
This is a pulpy story that has a flat character arc. Spade doesn’t change over the course of the story, he is morally solid throughout, and what changes it the world he affects, not him.
If THE MALTESE FALCON were to be rewritten with a positive character arc, Spade might face a smaller, lower-stakes version of the moral choice and make the wrong choice before or near the beginning of the story, learn or experience something that chances him, and then have him make a different moral choice at the end. All of it serves the same theme, only with different types of character arcs. Going further with that idea, he could have a negative character arc by starting as morally upright but then making the wrong moral choice for love and money, only to be betrayed by his love interest and then lose both. Again, it serves the theme, though with very different stories.
You can do the hero’s moral choice but expand on it through secondary characters, which offers variations on the theme. In the below hypothetical example, the protagonist thinks he must make a lot of money to be desirable. The people in his life show varying levels of wealth and happiness. Obviously, Joe should go out with Kathy and stop making money his top priority, but he should initially admire Bob and envy Pete before making his final choice.
Pacing of theme
In John Truby’s excellent ANATOMY OF STORY, he talks about how theme should gradually grow in the reader’s mind as the story converges to its conclusion.
Just to be complete here, it’s hard to talk about theme without touching on allegory, which is defined: “The expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence.”
Basically, an allegory is a story that uses theme on steroids.
In an allegory, characters and events are symbols with a deeper or larger meaning. The idea drives the story and stands for itself and something else. The most popular types of allegories are satire, fables, and parables.
For example, ANIMAL FARM is a story about farm animals that stage a revolution and kick out the farmer so they can run the farm themselves. Only a new ruling caste, the pigs, take over, resulting in the farm becoming just as if not more brutal than what they had before. The humans represent the capitalists, the animals the Russian people, the pigs the Stalinists, and the revolution the Russian revolution.
On to Part 2, Symbolism
And that’s theme! In Part 2 of “Thoughts on Theme, Symbolism, and Figurative Language,” we’re going to zero in on symbolism.
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