Novel Boot Camp #6: Developing a Theme

6837575065_59b31b0929_oWriters don’t often consider theme. It’s something we tend to associate with high school literature class or Pulitzer Prizewinners. Theme can seem stuffy or contrived.

Some writers feel that themes develop organically or that they are discovered by readers or professors only after a novel is already written and out in the world.

Though we have a tendency to dismiss theme, it’s a tool that can benefit all writers by making novels more cohesive and meaningful. Theme can be the difference between a beautiful work of art and a novel that leaves the reader shrugging their shoulders wondering “What was the point?”

Whether you’re writing for kids or adults, and whether you’re writing literary or genre fiction, an effectively executed theme can function as the glue that holds your story together.

What is Theme?

Many writers don’t utilize themes simply because they don’t understand what theme means. A theme is nothing more than an idea or concept that runs throughout the novel, tying the pieces together into a nice neat package.

  • Theme is not a lesson or moral to the story.
  • Theme can be good or bad, positive or negative, right or wrong.
  • Novels often have multiple themes, but one theme is almost always stronger than the others.
  • Theme often explores a broad range of opinions surrounding a single concept.
  • Most themes are developed either from a question the novel explores or from a comparison of two viewpoints.

Some examples of themes:

  • Does love conquer all?
  • Personal independence vs. loyalty to family.
  • Can money buy happiness?
  • Hardships are purely negative vs. hardships make you stronger.
  • Revenge vs. forgiveness

How Does Theme Play Out Across a Novel?

Theme is expressed in a variety of ways in a novel. Let’s look at the theme of revenge vs. forgiveness and how it might be conveyed.

The Protagonist

The theme should be closely related to the protagonist’s character arc. In the end, the protagonist will make their own decision about the theme and where they stand. Usually this will be the opposite stance from what they believed at the beginning of the book.

Example: If our theme is revenge vs. forgiveness, an obvious way this would play out for the protagonist is that the protagonist is motivated by revenge. In the end, the protagonist will realize that forgiveness is the better option. Boom. Character arc and theme wrapped into one.

The Antagonist

14783874772_84b829cc9a_oA very strong way to convey theme is to have the antagonist wrestling with the same issue and even taking the same stance as the protagonist, but the antagonist will respond in a different way.

Example: The antagonist is also motivated by revenge. Perhaps the antagonist wants revenge against the protagonist for something done by the protagonist’s parents, race, gender, or tribe. Though the antagonist has the same motivation, he/she will likely be more aggressive and adamant about their beliefs while the protagonist is more level-headed and directed (though not always).

Side Characters

Theme can also be used to tie-in conflicts and subplots involving side characters. This is usually done in a subtle way by having the side character take the opposite opinion of the protagonist in order to create contrast in the novel. This also helps the sidekick to be a more effective sounding board for the protagonist.

Example: The sidekick to the protagonist believes that forgiveness is better than revenge and expresses doubt on several occasions when the protagonist expresses particularly vengeful thoughts or plans. The side characters may or may not take the opposite opinion in a way that is too extreme, unhealthy, or detrimental.

The External Conflict

The external conflict should also convey the theme as it applies to the bigger picture. This bigger picture could be the family, friends, community, or whole world of the protagonist.

Example: The protagonist is fighting to protect their people from the antagonist’s revenge, perhaps while also trying to subdue a group of activists who believe in forgiveness. On many occasions the repercussions of living a life of revenge vs. forgiveness is depicted in the consequences the external conflict has on others.

Peripheral Events

If your novel has peripheral elements, such as subplots or historical events, those elements should also be tied into the theme.

Example: The novel is set during a time in history when the entire population was attacked. How the government responds to the attack (with forgiveness or revenge) provides an external mirroring of the protagonist’s conflict.

Choosing Your Novel’s Theme

Choosing a theme for your novel can help create cohesion by pulling together the various threads and components. When choosing a theme for your novel, it’s important to look closely at the character’s deep dark belief (as we discussed in the post about creating deep characters).

If your character believes that being powerful is the only way to feel loved, they will most likely change this opinion as they learn over the course of the novel that kindness and genuineness is a more effective and true way to love. So this novel might explore a theme of whether having true love or having power and control is more important.

Homework

If you don’t know what it is already, try to discover your novel’s theme. If it doesn’t have a theme, brainstorm how a theme could be created to help tie elements of the novel together. You may also find that choosing a theme helps you to brainstorm more effectively.

14779520072_914171dbb7_oDiscussion Question (please discuss in the comment section below):

What is the theme of your novel?

10 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp #6: Developing a Theme

  1. Lady of Lore says:

    A couple themes my story may have are “love does not conquer all” and “you never truly know someone” . Interesting topic today!

    • Anonymous says:

      “You never truly know someone” doesn’t sound like an effective theme, because there are no consequences attached to the theme and I can’t condense it to a single word. An expressed theme should usually result in something good or bad for the protagonist (and maybe other characters). I would try to think about what you really want to say. For example: “dishonesty destroys relations” or “naivety leads to victimization” or something like that. A theme in its most simple form is a single word which the story revolves around. In my examples it would be “dishonesty” or “naivety” which the story is all about. It is a good check for verifying if you have an effective theme on hand or not. If you can’t condense it to a single word, chances are you don’t have an effective theme. When you express your theme with multiple words it should always point at the consequence (e.g. “destroys relations” or “leads to victimization”), which will be the more concrete message you want to convey.

  2. Robert Buchko says:

    Thinking it through, I believe my overarching themes are “fate vs self-determination” (main theme) and “killing innocents for greater good vs each life being sacrosanct”. Brief exercise with huge implications.

  3. Jim says:

    I thought about and did some reading on this topic for a couple hours today. Not having “thought about” a theme for my novel before, it’s somewhat of a conundrum for me. I finally settled–at least for now–on “spiritual development” as the theme and a sub-theme of “matters of character,” meaning a person’s character, not the characters of a novel.

    Lots still to learn about this craft.

  4. Eliza Worner says:

    My theme looks at the cliches of Home. “Home is where the heart is. There’s no place like home.” What is a home and how do you find it if the heart is missing and everything is based on lies?

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