Theme is one of the primary concepts in writing effective fiction, yet it is often elusive for writers. Nail your theme consistently throughout a story or book, and you’ll leave a lasting impression on your reader.
Without theme, though, your story is just a collection of words.
What Is Theme?
Theme is tricky to define.
Dictionary.com takes three stabs at it:
The third is off the table for fiction writers, and the first doesn’t really fit the bill, either, since it’s closer to your story’s subject or concept.
Number 2 is pretty close, though.
For me, theme is the unifying or dominant idea in a story that recurs throughout the plot and presents the author’s overall message to the reader. Theme can be explicitly stated or implied, and it usually guides the protagonist’s journey, internal or external, wittingly or unwittingly.
The Difference Between Theme and Concept/Plot/Subject
One of the reasons that theme can be so squishy is that it is, indeed, tied closely to a story’s concept, plot, or subject. Or, at least, it should be tied to your plot if you want your message to get through.
So what’s the difference between these ideas?
As noted above, theme is the message you want to convey to your readers.
Subject and plot are the vehicles you use to carry out your theme. For example, if the theme of your book is the the everlasting but contentious love between fathers and sons, the subject of your story might be a son’s struggle to transition from being a high school baseball star to a young husband and father working in a local factory. And the plot might have that son trying to keep his baseball dreams alive by trying out for semi-pro teams in the few moments he can break away from his family and job, and his father might either be an aid or a hindrance in those efforts.
Your theme — fathers and sons — would weave throughout all the parts of your book, while your plot would carry readers along, with baseball and work as the overt subject matter on which you build the story.
Complicated, but vital to your story’s effectiveness.
Examples of Theme
Themes tend to be broad, sweeping concepts that are difficult to describe or experience in small bits but which become clear over the totality of your work. Common examples of themes literature, courtesy of PracticalCreativeWriting.com, include: alienation, ambition, betrayal, coming of age, courage, discovery, deception,escape, death, fear, freedom, good v. evil, isolation, jealousy, justice, loss, loneliness, love, lust, power, prejudice, security, survival.
For striking examples of theme usage, you need look no further than your local movie theatre.
The Star Wars franchise, for example, is built on world-splitting battles between Good and Evil. There is also a strong family dynamic in most of the films. with the original trilogy leaning heavily on father-son relationships.
How to Use Theme in Your Writing
Every good story needs a theme, even if it’s very subtle. Theme is one of those “hidden” elements that leave a reader feeling fulfilled or at least emotionally invested in your story. Theme can leave readers sad, happy, pissed-off, or nostalgic, but the key is that it should stay with them long after the words have faded from their minds.
So how do you cultivate theme and build it into your writing?
Well, the first step is to know what you’re trying to say with your tale … what is your theme, anyway?
If you don’t know, or if you can’t at least tease it out after looking at your book outline or thinking about your plot for awhile, you might ask yourself why you’re planning to write that piece in the first place.
Assuming you DO have at least a loose theme in mind, you can start thinking about how overtly you want to state it in your book.
For instance, if your theme is patriotism, you could “tell” your audience about it in a number of ways:
- A gung-ho freedom fighter who charges headlong into battle screaming the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
- A single father who makes years of personal sacrifices to raise his own son AND maintain active duty in the National Guard.
- An aspiring politician who bases his career on improving military strength and promoting nationalism
All of them will say something about patriotism, but with distinctly different voices.
Once you have your theme and basic plot laid out, then you need to make sure that your message is reinforced throughout your work. Again, you can accomplish this in several ways:
- Show your main character encountering the theme in his everyday life as the plot moves along. Seemingly small choices and gestures can be subtle ways to accomplish this.
- Periods of preparatory action building up to major, theme-supporting incidents. For example, the politician mentioned above might work to pass legislation that nets his nation its first nuclear bomb, and then he watches in excitement as the weapon is deployed.
- Dialogue is a powerful method to convey your theme. If something is important to you, you talk about it a lot, and so should your characters.
- But don’t forget … actions speak louder than words. Your characters need to live their values, which means their actions should reflect their views on your theme.
Theme is not easy to master, but its vital that you keep practicing.
After all, theme is your message to your readers and, if you don’t have that, why are you writing?
How do you use theme in your writing? Tell me about it in the comments below.