Theme for me is the emotional impact of the story. What you want readers to feel when they finish the book. It can be the same, or different, than tone, which is what you want readers to feel while they’re reading the book.
What is the message of the story? You are sending one, regardless if you’re conscious of it or not. It’s better to be conscious of it so you know what it is or else you could be sending something you don’t want.
One reasons my early military thrillers didn’t take off like Tom Clancy’s was my theme. I was a lot more realistic, for example, on the war on drugs. In his book, Clear and Present Danger, we won. In my book on the topic things went on as usual at the end. Not exactly uplifting. We do have to accept people often read to escape. Grim reality might not be the best move sometimes.
The best stories are the one that work on two levels. The obvious and the not so obvious. That take time to peel away and you can have discussions about.
However, one has to be careful not to get preachy with theme. It has to flow out of the story.
As far as Unity, this is something that I call pulling together the loops. I just finished a good draft of a book today and one thing I had to do at the end was look at my story grid and check the places where I had made notes to “loop”. To close out something I introduced earlier.
I don’t want loose ends.
It’s particularly important in the Time Patrol books because I’m pulling together seven separate storylines into one main storyline at the end. Not easy.
The novel should have unity in that everything leads to a conclusion that feels ‘natural’ for the reader. They can be surprised, but on reflection, realize “Yes, that’s the way it should be.”
Does everything in your story support your main storyline and lead to a satisfying ending?
Remember, though, that satisfying means most people. You can’t satisfy everyone, nor should you try.
Theme is the underlying idea of a story. It’s not a moral (it could be “Crime doesn’t pay” or “Crime does pay”), it’s a statement about the human condition. The only thing theme is good for, besides torturing literature students on essay tests, is achieving a unified story where all the parts fit together to form one coherent narrative governed by one (you guessed it) central idea, the theme.
Which is why you don’t even think about theme until the book is the done, the first draft anyway. I wait until I’m ready for the final rewrites before I step back and say, “What the hell was this book about anyway?”
There are two answers to that question. One is specific to Narrative—“This book is about Nita who has to face the truth about who she is before she can save the ones she loves”—and the other is specific to Theme—“This book is about the power of self-knowledge to set us free.” Lajos Egri has a nice cheat sheet for theme: ________ leads to ________, aka “Self-knowledge leads to freedom from the past.” The plot draft makes sure that the events of the story tie back to that first aboutness answer, the narrative. The thematic draft–which is just a draft of the book where I look for theme and rewrite to emphasize it –makes sure that the book sticks to one central question/answer. It never SAYS the theme, but subconsciously the reader knows there’s a spine to the book, a controlling idea that links every scene, every character, every conflict, and especially every metaphor, every symbol.
Example: Tell Me Lies was about the importance of establishing your own identity in the face of environmental/societal pressures. Every reader constructs his or her own theme, but a good bet for TML was: Rejecting your societally imposed identity to discover your true self leads to self-actualization.
So in the thematic rewrite, one of the things I did was to go through looking for symbols, and there on the first page was this pair of crotchless black lace underwear the heroine finds under the front seat of her husband’s car. I knew that was a symbol for the Other Woman (it was also a clue in the mystery), and when I read through for other symbols, damned if the heroine didn’t take off her white cotton underwear to seduce the hero. I hadn’t deliberately done that but it was pretty blatant contrasting symbolism—black lace/white cotton–so obviously my subconscious had been at work. (I love my subconscious; it does such interesting things when I’m not looking.) That meant I had two pairs of underwear as symbols, just crying to be motifs but for that I needed more. So note to myself: more underwear.
Then I looked at the beginning and ending of the book: In the beginning she finds the underpants and hides them from the neighbors; in the end she’s waiting for her lover to come make love to her. Nice ending, but thematically sterile. I try to bookend whenever possible, so I looked to see what I could repeat in the end to show how far she’d come, and there was the underwear again. Huge light went on. If she hides the underwear in the beginning, she should flaunt some in the end, and that would be my third pair to set up the motif series. So I had her take off her blue cotton underwear and hang it on the newel post so it’d be the first thing he saw when he came in. Then in the last draft, I thought, DUMMY, and moved the underwear to the front door knob so the whole neighborhood could see, flaunting her independence from their gossip and judgment. It wasn’t until I read the ARC that I realized that I’d made this pair blue–blue movies, etc.–so there was my subconscious working again. She’s still in cotton but now she’s sexually free.
Can you write a book without ever knowing the theme? Sure, lots of people do. Will it better if you figure it out and then revise to support it? Yep.
A key point your raise is multiple uses for things you put in a story. I trust my subconscious more and when I go back through a book always search for keys that are begging to be used again and again, often unlocking the theme. That’s one reason I always do a print out read through after the first draft. Reading it on page is different than screen. Another thing I do before publishing is a kindle read through to see what it looks like in eBook. The different formats enter my brain differently. Then I do the put it under the pillow “read” and see what floats up into my brain. Sometimes I let Cool Gus take a look.
That always amazes me. Print the ms out and it’s a different book.
Format it for Kindle and read it on your phone and its different. Then formatting for print makes it different (edited)
That final theme draft is just making sure that everything ties to that central idea, both the central plot question and the statement the story makes about the human condition.
It seems reductive, but novels are so damn BIG that you need that central spine to tie everything to.
Too many writers get caught up with story. I’ll ask them what their book is about and they’ll start telling the story. Agents and editors want to hear idea and theme.
Novels are daunting. Every time I start a new one its a bit overwhelming. No matter how fast I’m going I know its going to take months to finish.
The whole work is a metaphor. The story is the vehicle that carries the theme.
The big thing to remember is to not get preachy.
It’s not a moral, there is no bad or good here, it’s just an idea.
Another reason to get therapy– to understand yourself so you understand what you’re writing.
I do think the most fun about theme is metaphor and symbol.
I’ve been in therapy for decades, I still don’t understand me. Even my therapist is confused now.
As far as symbols, our brains tend to touch on certain things over and over. (edited)
I’ve reached Maslow’s Sixth Level.
I love that part of the rewrite where I go through and ask, “What’s with all the damn food in Agnes?”
I forget what the Sixth Level is. Food?
Ten is self-actualization, right?
He only has five.
Five is self-actualization. I bypassed that one. Too hard.
I could have sworn there were ten.
That’s why you’re still on number eleven.
- 1Physiological needs
- 2Safety needs
- 3Social belonging
They added one when i wasn’t looking.
That’s Wikipedia for you.
I give up. I could have sworn there were ten. Why the hell are we talking about Maslow?
Because we’re agreeing again.
The thing about theme is, it’s boring.
It’s essential, but it’s so damn abstract that it’s a snooze to talk about.
What’s interesting is when people miss it altogether or get it wrong.
But you can’t account for that.
Well, that’s the other problem: they can’t get it wrong. Once they read the story and make it theirs, whatever theme they see in it is right for them.
It’s not like theme is a teaching tool.
It’s just the idea that drove us to write the story.
So if they translate the story to mean something else, that’s what it means to them.
It is in literature courses. I took one on Faulkner and they were finding things in there that I don’t think were in there.
We don’t own it once the reader gets the story. Cut all emotional ties.
If it was Faulkner, damn near anything could be in there. I’m still so mad about Sanctuary, I could spit. I hope Temple Drake found him beyond the grave and made his afterlife hell.
People ask what my favorite book is, I tell them it’s the one I’m writing. Although by the end, where I am now, I am so sick of this book.
The fun part is the story itself, the characters and the action and the setting and that’s why symbols and metaphors are so much fun to work with.
You look at the motifs in the work and all of a sudden there’s all your subconscious, the Girls at work again.
Then it’s like a game.
Abstract ideas? Not so much.
I always feel like we have to teach theme (eat your broccoli) and then we dwell on metaphor, simile, motif, symbol (have some ice cream).
Remember the flamingos in Agnes? HUGE symbol, but mostly just a lot of fun.
Same with all that wedding cake stuff. And the wedding dresses as the different women fought for control of the house.
That’s an example where something you use has deeper meaning once you study it. Didn’t know flamingos mated for life until AFTER we put them in.
I still don’t know what the Venus was.
I knew before the flamingos put them in, but I didn’t when I decided to use them. I’d seen flamingo pens at a conference I went to and thought, “Those go in Agnes,” but I didn’t know why. Turned out flamingos don’t just mate for life, they desperately need a flock, community.
I bought a children’s book on flamingos as I remember. Children’s books are great resources for not getting bogged down in detail.
Children’s books are nuts. Dragons Eat Tacos or something like that? Really?
The food was the same thing, the way Agnes lured in her community.
And then used frying pans to take care of anybody who violated community.
And Shane gave her a bridge, remember? so her community could get to the wedding.
I’m just saying: that’s where the theme rewrite is fun because that’s where we’re dealing with concrete story again.
I sense you’re fading on this one.
Gus is upstairs barking like crazy. He puts a timer on everything.
Usually, it’s around food
His primary theme.
You know, you can’t keep blaming Gus when your attention span wanes. You have to just do a Willow and say, “Bored now.”
Everything is Cool Gus’ fault. Why? Because he doesn’t care. Perfect scapegoat. Scout still cares.
Next week is revising. Remember when we first started writing and you said you didn’t revise and I had a fainting fit? Good times.
There are three weeks left. Are you going to make it?
Bob? Bob? Yo, Bob.
Oh, good grief.
Sorry– wife just told me to get the monkey out of the flower bed
Ended up with a monkey, a green dinosaur, a Grinch and a pig.
If that’s what you kids are calling it these days.
Oh, I revise now. We’ll be boring again.
We’re boring now. Good night, Bob.