Theme: what it is and how to use it to make your writing sparkle

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This morning I started redrafting a story I wrote towards the beginning of last year and abandoned for reasons I can’t quite remember! I’ve read through it and had the ‘oh, actually it’s quite good’ thought, which is always pleasant – and far more likely after a long break from the work itself when your head’s not so buried in it.

In amongst the small ideas, it’s missing something broader – it’s lacking a central spine or theme, to unify it and really take the reader through the entire piece. It got me thinking about what really ‘theme’ is, and why it matters.

I’d define theme as what the story is about – not the plot or the characters, but the big moral or philosophical ideas about life, the universe and everything. Thinking about theme, you can see it in every novel and they’re always the stronger for having something more wide-reaching to say:

  • Harry Potter (J K Rowling) – the importance of friendship, of bravery and the courage to always do the right thing
  • Emma (Jane Austen) – being honest with yourself; allowing others to make their own decisions; realising you don’t always know best
  • The Lord of the Flies (William Golding) – how thin a veneer of civilisation we have, and how quickly it can be destroyed
  • The Fault in Our Stars (John  Green) – coping with illness, making the most of life

Not insignificant, then!! So, I went on a search to find what some others thought about theme and how to incorporate it into your writing.

I quite like this definition from Writer’s Digest:

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.

Romance novelist Helen Fairfax has this interesting post – http://helenafairfax.com/2013/07/19/writing-tips-using-theme-to-deepen-your-writing/

where she discusses a workshop she went on to explore the idea of theme further and had this to say:

There can be several themes running through a novel, of course, but there should be one strong theme which is the emotional core of your book, and the main idea you’re exploring.

She suggests Pride and Prejudice’s opening lines give away the theme – searching for love – as well as the title – beware both pride and prejudice when judging people.

Useful points from her post include introducing the theme early – the title, first line or paragraph should give suggestions. Use the theme to help sub-plots or propel the main plot. In a longer novel, the sub-plots could circle around the major themes, developing it in different ways to the main plotline. Use the theme as metaphor or symbolism – in the names, setting or in the descriptive language you employ. In Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, the theme of isolation echoes throughout, from the abandoned old house on the marsh, cut off by the causeway when the tide comes in, to the character’s desire to be alone leading him on a cycle ride to clear his head.

I’ve also gone back to Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k, which I find enormously helpful, to go over the structuring and hooks involved in building a story, which she calls story Velcro.

The current draft is around 11,000 words, and I expect it’ll probably end up around the 16-17k mark when I’m done. Next task is to take this reading, and return to my original text to develop the themes further and firmly embed those hooks!

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