When we think about the books that we love, there’s always something that stands out to us. In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, it’s Atticus’ brave stand against racism. In Lord of the Rings, two tiny Hobbits bring down the evil superpower. In A Monster Calls, you feel Conor’s pain and frustration that no one has the courage to say to him what he already knows. Then there are the books we don’t really care for, the ones that seem rambly and unfocused (no books spring to mind that wouldn’t provoke heated discussion).
What is the difference between the stories that stay with us and the stories that don’t? In part, it’s the theme. Look at the books mentioned above:
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Prejudice (particularly racism) and judgement
- Lord of the Rings – Light v darkness, the underdog wins, the power of friendship (to name just three)
- A Monster Calls – grief, anger, and loneliness
Each of these books has a strong, well-developed theme.
PLOT, THEME, AND MESSAGE
It is important not to get muddled between plot and theme, they are different. Plot, to put it less than eloquently, is ‘the stuff that happens’ in a book. Theme, on the other hand, is an idea or concept that appears throughout the story and usually reflects the character’s inner journey in some way. Theme mustn’t be confused with message either since two books may well have the same theme but a very different message. Theme is neutral, it’s the concept addressed. The message is the practical application of the theme, conveyed through the story.
For example, Fifty Shades of Grey and Precious Bane both have the theme of love (I know it’s very loosely so, bear with me). But, the message of Fifty Shades is that love and lust are the same thing and that it can be abusive and still be love. In contrast, Precious Bane’s message is that love is faithful and sees beyond the outward appearance to what lies beneath.
A simple summary would be that plot is ‘stuff that happens’, theme is the main idea or concept dealt with in the story, and the message is what the author wants you to learn about the theme.
HOW DO I DECIDE ON A THEME?
On the whole, it is difficult to write a story without a theme. There are two ways to work out the theme of your piece:
- you can sit down and think of something that you would like to write about and build a story around it
- or you can write the story you want to write and then identify the theme that develops naturally from it.
I find the latter makes for much more natural stories.
It’s good to be aware that certain themes will resonate with your readers and others will come and go from style. Themes which follow cultural trends tend to be things like mental health, gender issues, and politics – all of which will wax and wane in popularity. However, themes which will resonate from generation to generation include light versus darkness, the power of love, family, coming of age, fear, loss, justice, freedom, belonging, jealousy, power, man’s search for meaning, and prejudice. Though the messages brought to us through these themes vary between generations, they are universal human struggles.
When choosing your theme, it is good to be aware that there are trends and to be careful to pick something that will continue to engage people in the future. It is also important to choose a theme that you feel strongly about since writing a book takes an awful lot of time and effort. You will need to be invested in it if you want to make it to the end.
HOW DO I DEVELOP THEME?
The first step is to know what you want to say and why. This will help you to define your theme, making it easier to know what it is that you are trying to develop.
Your characters play an important part too. Their motivations will drive the theme and illustrate the message you are trying to convey. If your story is about overcoming fear but your protagonist is never afraid of anything, the theme will be weak at best and your readers will be less engaged. However, if you have a warrior who is afraid of the ocean but has to cross the sea to save the princess, you’re beginning to get the idea.
Theme is displayed in various ways. Often the subtler forms are best as they feel more natural and less preachy. Characters’ actions, thoughts, and speech can illustrate the theme so that the reader hardly even notices. A good example of this is when Atticus defends Tom outside the jail and Scout steps in, questioning the mob (and thereby convicting them) in To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee doesn’t spend pages and pages laying out arguments for why racism and prejudice is wrong, she uses Scout’s innocent questions to help the other characters (and the readers) question what’s going on in their own hearts.
Developing theme is a big subject in its own right and we’ll take a look at it in the future. For now, this should be enough to get you thinking.
- What is the main theme in your current story?
- What themes do you find yourself most attracted to in books?