Thinking about Theme

theme (Small) We often discuss the different elements of writing fiction here at TKZ. Topics such as plot, narration, characterization, dialog, and point of view are just a few that come up now and then. But a topic that’s not touched on as often is theme. Theme is usually a global statement on what a book is about. Theme goes beyond plot by conveying the message that supports the structure of the story. In many instances, it expresses a lofty idea usually revolving around human emotions or life in general.

A good starting point in determining a book’s theme is to first establish its subject or topic. This is normally expressed in a one-word description such as love, revenge, jealousy, fear, deceit, betrayal, etc. The theme can then be found by turning the subject or topic into a short, focused statement.

So for instance, if the subject of a novel is fear, the theme could be fear exposes the true nature of an individual. If the subject is revenge, the theme could be by taking revenge, you become just like your enemy. If the topic is betrayal, the theme might be that betrayal only hurts the ones you love.

A book’s theme can teach or preach. The former is preferred. No one wants to be preached to. But we all desire to build upon or confirm our beliefs. The theme can address “big” issues such as the meaning of life. Or something more manageable like crime doesn’t pay.

Whatever the theme, all stories have them. How well they come across without being “in your face” relies on the skill of the author.

What is the subject or topic of your favorite book(s)? And what was the theme? Did you feel the writer was teaching or preaching? How about your own work? Do you knowingly have a theme before you start writing?

6 thoughts on “Thinking about Theme

  1. I find theme confusing, but then I find life confusing so I suppose that’s why. When I think of favorite books, I can usually see more than one theme–can’t usually successfully distill it down to just one.

  2. I usually find theme emerging naturally as my characters undergo their trials. And I definitely don’t have them “preach” about it; the dialogue needs to be natural, too.

  3. In my books, one of the ways I illustrate theme is through the protagonist and secondary characters. For example, in MAKEOVERS CAN BE MURDER, the theme is the relationship between physical appearance and the true nature of beauty. I have my protagonist, Kate, who agonizes over her weight to the point of insecurity, another character who undergoes repeated plastic surgeries to achieve physical perfection, and a plastic surgeon who is attracted to Kate and finally convinces her that she is beautiful and desirable just as she is.

  4. I usually know the theme before I begin writing, but usually after I’m well into the outline. I outline the main plot in much more detail than the subplots, so I rely on the theme to tell me what I should be aiming for in the subplots.

  5. BK, a book’s theme should be fairly clear, and you should get some idea of it by the time you’re into the third act. If you don’t there may be a flaw in the writing. And I agree, a book can have more than one, but usually one dominates in regard to the main plot and protagonist.

    Jim, that’s exactly how a theme should reveal itself: through the characters actions and reactions.

    Kathryn, interior vs. exterior beauty is a great theme.

    Tim, that’s one more reason why outlining can be so beneficial.

  6. I recently hosted Gar Anthony Haywood on Blog Talk Radio and prior to that had a discussion with Tim Hallinan.

    These two writers deliver important themes in their work in a way that is incredibly thought-provoking but not forced. Gar left me considering my life choices and whether those times I’ve gotten away with something have harmed me in a way I’m not even aware of.


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