Many writers shiver at the T word. After all, finding a novel’s theme sounds so intellectual, a boring week of high school English you’d rather leave forgotten. But throw out theme at your own risk, because it’s the secret ingredient that will make your story soar, or leave it sorely lacking.
Many stories find themselves theme-less when the writer gets a great plot idea and forgets that the plot is secondary to that dreaded T Word.
Let’s say, we want to write about a knight who saves a damsel from a dragon. There’s your plot, BAM! It’s filled with clashing swords, a hint of romance, some funny reptile jokes and a good dose of poetic description about fire and scales. But when the dragon falls, the reader is left feeling empty. Why? Because in getting caught up in the plot, the author has totally forgotten about the meat in the sandwich: theme, theme, theme.
You see, the reader isn’t engaged in this story because they want to find out if the dragon gets killed. They’re embarking on the journey because they want to a) fall in love with characters they care about and b) garner an insight into the human condition, or to put it more simply, feel something that they can relate to.
Getting too spiritual for you? Stay with me, it’s about to get simple again.
Theme harks back to why storytelling began in the first place. Cavemen used primitive images to convey important messages about where to find sharp rocks. But as cultures around the world progressed further, storytelling evolved to become much deeper. It was no longer enough to use stories for the purpose of passing information, our ancestors decided they wanted to be entertained as well. And so stories formed morals, important insights into the human condition that were best illustrated via dramatic examples. After all, it’s one thing to warn a child not to raise an alarm in jest, it’s another thing to sit with them by the camp fire and make them wet themselves with the boy who cried wolf.
In modern storytelling, the need for a moral, theme or message has never been higher. It’s not enough to just have a dynamic plot and an interesting character. So how do you find your theme? Do you have to dig it out of yourself via hours of therapy and a big box of tissues? Or endless writing workshops that make elusive promises about some ‘secret ingredient for literary success’? Maybe, but for most of us it’s easier than that.
Finding Your Novel’s Theme
An exercise I often recommend is to think of a theme that excites you. Let’s say it’s generosity, or to be a little more intellectual about it, that selflessness can save one’s soul, even if it comes at a material cost.
So, what’s the opposite to generosity? Why greediness, of course. And with that simple process, we now have the basis for an engaging character and theme that will thread the work together.
Let’s go back to our knight and his dragon. We could choose to embody greediness in the form of his enemy, or even the events that happen to him, but in this case, we’re going to bury the theme in the character himself.
Create Conflict With Your Theme
The knight is handsome and across the lands he’s heralded as the greatest warrior that ever lived. But for all his courage, that glittering potential we detect, he’s ruthless and arrogant. All he cares about is power and winning at all costs. His life’s goal? To find a mythical dragon. If he can get the dragon and train it to become his own, he’ll be more powerful than the king himself.
On his quest he meets his damsel. He can’t stand the woman because she’s done something to get in the way of his greediness. Maybe she’s stepped in to save his page from being beaten, much to his embarrassment. Her generosity of spirit has clashed against his selfishness.
But then, she does something selfless for him, even after he’s done nothing but spite her. He’s confused by her generosity and begins to question his ways. As a character, he starts to grow. The theme begins to weave its magic.
Of course, being a selfish bastard, he’s not going to throw off his armour and vollunteer at a local orphanage. No, his growth is going to be much more painful than that.
Our damsel tries to help the knight see the error of his ways, but he draws his cloak of greediness firmly around him. Eventually, she gives him up as a lost cause. It breaks her heart, but her generosity can only go so far. After following the knight across the country to find his dragon, she leaves him to return home.
A Hard Choice
When the knight awakes he realises the damsel has left him and is faced with yet another sign that his selfishness is not as fun as he first thought. He decides to postpone his hunt for the dragon and go in search of the damsel. The mountains are dangerous and while he plans to beat her for her insolence, he feels bad about leaving her unprotected. His selfishness begins to waver.
Crossing the mountains, what does he find, but his dragon! It is the most beautiful beast he’s seen and the thought of taming it stimulates every greedy molecule inside him. He’s never felt so power hungry than at this one, dazzling moment. But then he looks closer… The beast is bent over his damsel, its huge jaws gaping open, ready to bite her pretty little head off.
See where this is going?
The knight has no time to think and stop the beast through force or magic. Drawing his bow, he sends an arrow through the creature’s eye and watches as his dream collapses into a useless bag of bones. His act is selfless and completely contrary to what he would have done at the start of the book. Of course, they ride off into the sunset and that act of selflessness makes him a thousand times happier than his silly dragon ever could have. As they read the last line the reader sighs and has a lovely “Aaah,” moment.
Why We Work With Themes
Good writers recognise that the plot and character only exists to illustrate the theme and if a writer’s really smart, they’ll have multiple themes that twist around each other to create a highschool English student’s worst nightmare.
If you have already written your plot and you theme is MIA, don’t despair. With a good rewrite you can insert it retrospectively. Ask yourself, what potential for a theme/s is there in the work? If there was one lesson the character learned, what would it be? Once you have it, flip it to its opposite (negative) extreme and apply that to the character, enemy or plot to create trouble, tension and good room for growth. In no time at all you’ll be positively thematic!
Quick Tips on Themes
- Themes are always universal, an insight into the human condition that could apply to a schoolgirl in Paris or a business executive on Wall Street.
- The theme may be timeless, but the execution needs to be fresh and unique. Telling the same old story will ensure people switch off. We’ve already heard about the boy who cried wolf, but what about the woman who pretended to be sick, to garner sympathy?
- Pack it with potential. Make sure the plot is designed to allow lots of room for you to explore your theme. For example, if you want to write about love and you decide to do that via characters embroiled in hate, build a plot that raises lots of reasons for them to despise each other. No one wants to read about two happy people, in happy land, who love each other. They won’t even get past the first chapter.
Need some help finding your novel’s theme? Check this out.