Guest Post: The Thing About Theme – What Are You Trying to Say?

by Jessica Flory

Theme in your writing is as tricky to pin down as it is tough to implement.  And yet, working in a great theme is absolutely essential to your novel.

If you want to publish, that is.  And, if self-publishing, if you want your work to have an impact.

Dictionary Definition

First of all, what is theme? The definition is pretty elusive, but it can most easily be classified as the overall message of your writing.

Why are you writing in the first place? Writing is hard, so why are you doing it? Ask yourself, why are you slogging through that novel? It’s long, at times tedious, but it’s still worth it. Why is that?

It’s because you have a message.

You have something to say.

Figure out what that is, and you’ve got your theme.

Why Do I Need a Theme?

It’s a good question, one that’s pertinent to every writer. Working with theme is crucial if you want to write and write well. No one wants to read a book that floats from topic to topic. Having a solid core to build your story around, that drives your message home at the oh-so -critical climax, will leave your readers breathless.

Now that’s just about every author’s dream.

Expertly crafted theme will:

  •     Give Your Writing Life: We all live, we all have problems that we need to resolve, and we all have core principles. Address these problems; bring to light those values!
  •     Add Depth to Your Writing: Theme, expertly executed, will fill your writing with compelling content and a deeper meaning. When you have a purpose to your writing, a message of human goodness that you’re trying to get out there, the emotional level of your writing is dramatically increased.
  •     Make Your Writing Stick: With theme incorporated, your writing will stick with your readers! Theme will tie your writing together cohesively and give it an undertone with the same message. Your readers may not remember the details of your words, but they’ll remember what statement you made and the emotional level that you brought them to.

How to Work it In

Theme is tough to define, and it’s even harder when you’re trying to artfully weave it into a story. Here are a few ideas for incorporating theme and giving your writing that extra boost:

  •     No Overloading: First of all, know that where theme is concerned, less is more. Loads more. Don’t try to incorporate ten different themes and make them all work. Pick one main theme that you want to address and maybe a few lesser themes that also peek through your story.
  •     Work With What’s Important to You: Chances are it will be important to your readers, too. Have you had an experience in your life that tested your courage? Write about that. Readers will immediately feel drawn to your story. It will demonstrate to them true principles of bravery, and it will feel real because you’ve experienced it and you can write about it well. A theme can be anything from courage, hope, peace, love, and sacrifice, to fulfilling your dreams, going for your goals, or hard work.
  •     Center Your Story: Place the central points of your story around your chosen theme. Include anecdotes that demonstrate the quality you’re trying to show. The theme should be the main message of your book, and it should come out at the climax.

Extra Tip

A great way to make theme the center of your story is to work with your character’s flaws. Give them a flaw that they must overcome before the conclusion of the story can be reached.

For example, if you want courage to be your main theme, make your main character very afraid of facing their fears. Then have them go through a series of events that demonstrate the need for courage, make them determined to overcome their character flaw, and have them face their fears against all peril for a dramatic and satisfying finish.

Congratulations. You’ve just made courage your main theme.

Theme is as difficult to define as it is to incorporate, but it can be done. When it is, when theme is woven and intertwined in a story so skillfully that it sweeps the reader off their feet and carries them for the ride of their lives, it works. Theme can take your story to new heights, so what are you waiting for? Go for it!

Visit Jessica’s site, Write for Life, for more thoughtful blog posts on the writing experience.

21 Comments

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21 Responses to Guest Post: The Thing About Theme – What Are You Trying to Say?

  1. Nice piece! For me, I understand the importance of having a theme. My main trouble is with incorporating the theme in such a way that it doesn’t appear cliche or preachy.

    At what point does a certain theme (such as courage from the article) become overused? Is it the message itself that becomes cliche or the execution of it?

    Thanks for the article. I look forward to more.

  2. Thank you! That’s definitely good to hear.
    Personally, I think that a theme can’t really itself become overused. The basic beliefs and qualities of human life will always cut straight to the heart. They’re constant principles of lasting importance.
    As you put it, it’s how the theme is presented that can, at times, become cliche. It’s tricky to get the balance right. Too much theme and your story turns into a pulpit. Too little, and your theme isn’t strong enough.
    Theme takes a subtle touch. You want your readers to be able to pick up on it without being overwhelmed.
    What do you think?

  3. Trudy

    What’s the difference between theme and ‘voice’?

  4. Wow! Thanks for this really interesting post about choosing a theme. The entire post was absolutely wonderful and the section about how to work it in was super helpful!

  5. Ben

    I really needed this post. It gave me sudden and wonderful insights into the story I’m writing. Thanks!

  6. Jade

    Thank you so much for this post. I always have a theme in mind (vaguely), but making myself define it…. gives me insight to why I’m writing it. Also I am positive it will help me be consistent and add depth.

    Thanks again!

  7. @Trudy – I’ll weigh in on this one (your question: what’s the difference between theme and voice?)… they are as different as, say, in a meal, salt and sour cream. They are completely different aspects (tools) of the story.

    Theme is, as Jessica shows us, what the story “means.” It’s what’s it is about in terms of the aspect of real life it is exposing, exploring or advocating. “The Davinci Code,” for example, explored several themes that included the veracity of the Christian religion, the politics of the Catholic Church and the line between faith and fanaticism.

    “Voice,” on the other hand, is the writer’s choice of words. Their writing style. Their sentences. Just as two people don’t don’t exactly alike, no two writers “write” exactly alike, and the thing that makes them different is their voice. Two writers can cover the exact same ground (topically), but one may be clearer than the other, and one may be more passionate than the other… the list goes on… all because of their voice. Stuart Woods, for example, is funny, his voice is humorous. He writes crime thrillers. So does Michael Connelly, but his voice is more journalistic, with a nice touch of irony and wit. Nelson Demille is dry and sarcastic. Jonathan Franzen is flowery and eloquent. All these differences are pure voice, they have nothing to with the themes these writers tackle.

    Hope this helps. Larry

  8. @Trudy – Larry said it perfectly! Theme and voice are very distinct and equally crucial aspects of writing.

    @Yasmin and Ben – I’m so truly glad that this post was helpful! Keep on writing, and never give up. There’s a lot to master, including theme, but it’s so worth it. All of it.

    @Jade – I completely agree with you. Until I sit down and really think about my theme, my story doesn’t have a sense of purpose, and I’m not as motivated to work on it. Once I figure out what I’m trying to say, I’m determined to get it out there, and the words have more meaning to me. Theme will definitely give consistency and depth to your writing, so keep working at it!

  9. Thanks for this post. I finally understand what theme is now and how to apply it to my story. For the longest time I was sitting there thinking–what? Now I know exactly what theme is. Your post described it in a really easy to understand, easy to follow way. Appreciate it!

  10. @Jennifer – Thank you so much! That is great to hear. I can confidently say that you’re not alone on the whole being confused with theme deal. It’s a tough subject, since it’s pretty abstract. I’m glad that this post could help clarify!

  11. Another thought… all good stories have a theme. No exceptions. But… within some genres they’re more subtle. For example, mysteries are “about” the clues and the solution, with theme layered in. Thrillers are “about” what will happen, or not, with a little more overt theme layered in (this is the “art” of it). Same with sci-fi and fantasy, the stories are often “about” the world-building, but also with theme.

    Theme is often parallel with character arc. The hero has to change, the hero learns something, applies that learning, and that “lesson” is available to all and becomes theme.

    Interestingly, so-called “mainstream” novels (like Franzen’s) are “about” theme first and foremost. “The Cider House Rules” by John Irving was about the right to life issue, and played both sides. “The Davinci Code” is all about the veracity of the Christian religion, delivered via a mystery story.

    So genre is important. If you are cloudy on this, read within your chosen genre and look for theme, then read a bestselling mainstream book (or film, all this applies to films, as well, with a thinner veneer of theme in some of the more commercial “Hollywoodesque” efforts) and see how huge theme is. L.

  12. So theme can really be boiled down to a single word like the example above that cited, “Courage?” Maybe I’m overcomplicating my stuff then… Thanks, LL

  13. @Lake — again, pls allow me to butt in (I’m sure Jessica has valuable input to this one, as well). My take: yes, the theme for a story can be summed up one word. Not always, but the more words it takes to describe your theme, the more risk you’re taking with it. A story that is “about” courage — exploring it, showing, giving it consequences — is a great thematic platform. As is a story about love, about parenting, about divorce, about cheating, about too much government, about lawyers, about… just about anything.

    You don’t have to take sides with theme. In fact, that’s the risk: you can easily turn a story into a propaganda or something polarizing, which isn’t the point… unless you want it to be the point. Many stories “lean” into a certain take on its theme, others explore it neutrally, while a few others (I say few, because they hardly ever get published) border on preaching. The art of it is to infuse them into a dramatic story that compels on both levels: the dramatic and the thematic.

    Hope this helps. L.

  14. @Lake – I agree with Larry. Most themes can be summed up in one or few words, and this is because the best themes are the ones that are pretty simple. They make up the underlying story, the message that you’re quietly working in, and it’s difficult to make it subtle when you’re message is complicated. When your theme blares its way to the forefront of your story, that’s when you have to be careful of being preachy.

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  16. Donna Lodge

    Jennifer @

    Thanks for posting. Theme takes work to be able to say it in a sentence. I liked the examples you gave (especially centering your story). Hadn’t thought of expressing theme in that way.

    “Center Your Story: Place the central points of your story around your chosen theme. Include anecdotes that demonstrate the quality you’re trying to show. The theme should be the main message of your book, and it should come out at the climax.

    Extra Tip: A great way to make theme the center of your story is to work with your character’s flaws. Give them a flaw that they must overcome before the conclusion of the story can be reached.

    For example, if you want courage to be your main theme, make your main character very afraid of facing their fears. Then have them go through a series of events that demonstrate the need for courage, make them determined to overcome their character flaw, and have them face their fears against all peril for a dramatic and satisfying finish.”

  17. Jessica – wise words about theme for us newbie writers. I have puzzled over weaving theme into my narrative. Practical advice here. 🙂

  18. Great post Jessica! It came at a great time for me: I’m working on both a novel and a screenplay, both with clear themes, but there’s always the worry that I’m going to “tell” more than “show” what the theme is. You’ve given me a lot of great ideas to weave the themes into my plotlines. 🙂

  19. Just saw “The Help” (the movie) which (you may already be aware) we have deconstructed here at length (the book). Just wanted to mention, in context to this discussion about theme, that this book and movie is about as theme-driven as they come, and it’s a great showcase of how characterization and theme work together within the context of plot and dramatic tension… to create a sum that exceeds the parts. Without the author’s thematic passion and intention there is no bestseller, and no story at all.

    I invite you all to add your thoughts about the movie here!

  20. @Donna and M.E. Anders – Thanks so much! I’m so glad that this post could be helpful.

    @Krissy – Showing theme, rather than telling it, is almost always the best way to go, so good for you for making sure you’re thinking about that! Good luck with novel and screenplay both; it’s great to hear that this post could help provide ideas for you to enrich them.

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