What’s Your Theme?

Having a theme for a novel or story is something I’ve always struggled with. I can cope with the internal and external conflicts that a character must have and the plotting of the ‘journey’ each character must go on, in order to emerge, changed in some way, at the end of the tale. The theme is something much bigger but also much simpler than all of this other detail. The theme will not be mentioned explicitly in the story but will occur and reoccur subtly throughout the narrative in the actions of your characters. The theme will generally be something to do with being human, for example growing old, maternal love or keeping secrets.

I don’t believe it’s necessary to have the theme before starting a fiction project because often it will evolve organically. For example you may notice that your characters are all motivated by greed, be it in slightly different ways, maybe one is greedy for money but another is greedy for fame and attention.

So what made me start thinking about theme?

A friend of mine, children’s author Lorraine Hellier sent me a useful link to an article on theme on the Reedsy blog. The article compares the structure of a novel to an iceberg split into three sections:

  1. Plot i.e. the events of the narrative. This is the smallest part of the structure.
  2. Story i.e. internal and external character conflicts.
  3. Theme. This is the huge chunk of iceberg beneath the water and drives both the plot and the story.

I’ve found this a useful concept to muse on as I ponder over what should happen next or how a character should act/react in my current WIP.

Knowing your theme makes it much easier to tell others what your book is about. Instead of delving into the detail of the plot, start with a sentence on the theme, for example, “It’s about how power corrupts.” (Animal Farm by George Orwell)

Why not take a look at the Reedsy article and let me know what you think?

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  1. #1 by juliathorley on September 22, 2017 - 3:26 pm

    Interesting stuff. I don’t think I start with a theme, but one usually emerges. I suppose it must have been lurking in my mind all along. Would it be better to bring it to the fore before I start to write? Must I say ‘I’m going to write about sibling rivalry’ first? Hmm, not sure how I feel about this.

    • #2 by Sally Jenkins on September 22, 2017 - 6:54 pm

      I tend to agree with you, Julia. But I’ve found that somehow a theme does emerge although there might not have been one there in the first place. And I don’t think it needs to be emphatically brought to the fore or you’ll be ramming it down the reader’s neck! Keep it subtle!

  2. #3 by Bobby Fairfield on September 22, 2017 - 6:19 pm

    Unless specifically intended I think the theme is the most underrated yet important part of any story, long or short and often cleverly concealed but exposed gradually. Part of the art of writing.

    • #4 by Sally Jenkins on September 22, 2017 - 6:56 pm

      Cleverly concealed but exposed gradually – that’s a great way of putting it, Bobby. I hope that’s a skill I can learn!

  3. #5 by Christine on September 26, 2017 - 8:48 am

    I didn’t realise I had a theme until I read the article. When I thought about it, I saw my characters were all searching for the same thing – love, friendship, basically a family to belong to.

    • #6 by Sally Jenkins on September 26, 2017 - 1:36 pm

      That sounds like a great theme to have running through a book, Christine. I think it’s basically what we all want – a group or family to belong to. It’s funny how we subconsciously build themes into our work.

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