“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?