The Quiz Question That Inspires Fear

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“Describe the theme of this novel” is one of those pop quiz questions that can inject terror into the soul of an eighth grader in English class. Sometimes even an experienced writer can struggle to identify a specific theme in his or her story, especially during the writing process.

A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. If a plot could be compared to the body of a race car, the theme would be the engine turning its wheels. In King Lear, for example, one of its main themes is authority versus chaos.

Theme vs. Subject

We should not confuse a story’s subject with its theme. The subject of a story would be a one-word descriptor of its main idea. “War”, for example, would be the subject of many stories. A theme would be an opinion related to that subject, such as “In War, everyone loses.” Joe Moore wrote an excellent post a while back about how to distinguish between a story’s subject and its theme.

Some writers approach theme almost as an afterthought. But having  a well-crafted theme adds dimension and depth to our stories.

Using a character-driven approach to develop a theme

I like to use minor characters to explore a story’s underlying theme. I call this method the “360-degree” approach to developing theme. In this approach, the secondary characters represent various aspects of the main theme, and they act as foils to the main character’s experiences. For example, the theme of A KILLER WORKOUT was “Mean Girls Suffer Last”. That theme was explored through the story arcs of several characters. One woman had been victimized by bullies in her youth; another was a bully. Another character was a protector of abused women.  Each of these characters explored different facets of the subject of bullying and  emotional abuse.

What’s your theme?

How do you explore theme? What’s the theme of your WIP? How are you working that theme into your narrative?

11 thoughts on “The Quiz Question That Inspires Fear

  1. The theme of my WIP is, courage comes from character. My character, an extra-petite, All American 4-foot-11 inch tall girl-next-door former U.S. Marine military police officer (you had to be there) who is called to provide security for a large of group of volunteers searching for a Downs child who disappeared along the Cherokee County part of the Davy Crockett Memorial Trail in eastern Tennessee.

    This novel is a sequel to the first story about Lisa’s reason for leaving the Marine Corps to help find her godson who disappeared after the brutal murder of his mama. In that story, Lisa was a PTSD-whipped wreck, a young girl who had found ways to hide from herself and her problems, but who found she had to get well to really be able to help others.

    The next sequel will hold the same theme because, if you have character, then courage will always well up within you despite the desperation of the moment or the danger of the time.

    • That’s an appealing approach, Jim! My favorite novel, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, and the courage of Atticus comes to mind.

  2. Love that you wrote about theme, Kathryn. Theme isn’t explored enough, IMO. I also love your 360-degree approach.

    The theme of my new release, SCATHED, is “Family Trumps All.” It’s a familiar theme that runs through all the books in the series, with narrative and story arcs that explore different facets of the theme within each book.

    • Good one, Sue—and so many ways to explore the possibilities via your characters throughout!

  3. The theme of my WIP, after thinking about what you wrote here, is everyone deserves attention. My main character has done his best to disappear in school, hasn’t seen his parents since elementary school, and is ignored by his current babysitter. Another character is a bully, but she’s only a bully because no one pays attention to her and continues to not pay attention. She is also fully aware of why she’s doing what she’s doing, but can’t stop it. Another character has just moved to the school and is trying to be perfect so he won’t get trampled. The others I’ll have to explore a little more, but wow, thanks for helping me find my theme.

  4. The whole concept of theme baffles me, and always has. I’m not being deliberately obtuse here. I guess all of my books share the theme that justice is a relative concept, but I don’t see how that observation is useful. The story is the story, the characters do what they do, and we all go on a Great Pretend.

    What happens when different readers see different themes, and they are all different than the theme the writer thought he was presenting? Are they all correct, because it is the general nature of art is all in the viewer/reader/listener’s interpretation? And if the identification of theme is that relative, then I don’t see how it is important to me as the creator of the thing that is being interpreted.

    • John, I had a professor in college who was very helpful to me when I was trying to figure out theme.

      He said that them is not an abstraction. Clouds, floating in space, the peace of fishing, running from a dogman, are not themes.

      He said to tackle the issue head-on. A clear theme is expressed in a sentence: a subject, an object, and a predicate. ” ‘Peace in the clouds is not a theme’.” Then this: ” ‘Achieving peace among the clouds requires thought, effort, and work’, is” These two sentences are written in red ink in the margin of one of my stories. In lecture, he said, “A reader will understand your theme if you state it to yourself in a complete sentence. All your readers should be able to understand your theme if you do this.”

      I got it really quick because he used that story to illustrate a poorly thought-out theme.

  5. Great topic, Kathryn.

    Actually, I have a book recommendation for everyone. Please check out The Golden Theme: How to Make Your Writing Appeal to the Highest Common Denominator by Brian McDonald. The book addresses a universal truth that links all stories. I won’t say what it is, because I want everyone to read the book. After that, you’ll probably want to read Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate and Ink Spots: Collected Writings on Story Structure, Filmmaking and Craftsmanship, both by Brian McDonald. Good stuff. I promise.

  6. Is “theme” akin to the concept of an “implied author”, supposedly present in every written work, whether the author or reader realizes it or not. Implied author is supposedy not necessarily the same as narrator or point of view character. Perhaps it’s an unconscious voice? Or is implied author mostly what the reader takes away from the work? I have trouble getting my mind around these concepts with any kind of certainty.

    • Read Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate by Brian McDonald, and you’ll learn all about theme. In a previous post, I mentioned some other books by Brian that are also worth a read.

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