In writing any piece, such as a story or novel, an author writes about something. Usually, this is intentional, but at times, we write, finish, and then discover what we have written. The something that we have written about is called the Theme. Other ways to define theme include the essence, the main topic, or the central idea of the piece. The theme summaries what the story means and how it relates to the reality of life. The theme can be rather simple like ‘friendship,’ ‘family,’ or ‘companionship.’ Or the theme can be more complex such as ‘coming of age,’ or ‘love overcoming hate.’
The theme is a message that we bring to the readers via our characters’ struggles and growth throughout the story. The events of the story you write and how your characters react is how the reader can draw the thematic lessons from experiencing the growth of your characters.
The stronger the theme, the more likely the reader will connect to the story and will invest in the outcome. A strong theme is a memorable theme – one that the reader will remember long after they have finished the story. And isn’t that the experience that we want our readers to have?
How to Build a Theme
The fact is that the theme can be built in several ways. Authors can decide before writing the theme they want to reveal to the readers. However, this may lead to reader being hit over the head with the theme and thus can become preachy and heavy-handed. Some authors write with no particular theme in mind. Instead, they wait until the draft is done and then exam the story for a theme. They can them strengthen the theme or change it. The third way authors write is to completely ignore the idea of a theme and allow the readers to come up with their own conclusion about the story. In some instances of this type of writing, the story is not unified, and the reader comes away unsatisfied or with a skewed impression of the story.
Ideally, the author should have at least a vague idea of the theme before they write, because they have something to say about the subject. In good storytelling, the theme is a natural byproduct. Planning is helpful, but once you have determined what it is that you want to emphasize of life’s lessons; you are free to enhance that theme.
Developing the Theme
As you are thinking about the plot, ask yourself: What is the essence of the story which relates to life? What life lesson(s) will your main character learn throughout the story?
As you write, allow the theme to be in the background – let it speak for itself. Look at your main character and ask:
What flaws in this character can be emphasized to manipulate the story to highlight the theme? Write in scenes that allow the theme to be challenged.
What plot events can reinforce the theme? Turning point events can either allow your character to succeed or not. These turning points can subtly show the why of their actions and therefore reinforce the theme.
What choices do the main character make that relate to the theme? Sometimes the main character’s choice allows the character to succeed; sometimes they fail, and sometimes they make the ‘right choice’ and still fail due to external forces. In all these scenarios, the theme can be on display.
I hope this overview about writing themes has been helpful to you. I would urge you to look over your work in progress and see if you can identify and enhance the elements that make up your theme.
Comments are always welcome!