Novel Building Blocks: Theme - article

Theme is the heart and soul of what the author is trying to say with a novel. Theme is about the big picture. It is the sum of what a novel truly means. Theme is imbedded below the surface of the narrative. The outward stuff -- the characters, the plot, the setting -- these elements are all concrete. Theme is abstract. It dwells within a philosophical examination of the novel. It is book specific and is not narrow like the simple idea of “love conquers all.” The theme of a novel explores and expands on an idea, moral, or belief, and guides readers to conclusions.

In novels, the convention is to implicitly reveal the theme. It is important that theme is imbedded in the story like DNA. A common error of budding novelists is a distrust of readers by preaching and teaching to them overtly through the story. The novelist is unsure that readers will understand what is being conveyed. They don’t trust their readers, but novelists must be brave. Readers love to listen and perceive.

Theme is developed by the choices an author makes to write his novel. Who populates a story? The story journey, the setting…each element of the novel is important in creating a cohesive theme. Many authors do not really understand their theme when beginning a novel. Some authors write two or three novels before they even identify their personal thematic patterns. Hence theme can be an unconscious activity.

There is no one right way to approach theme. Many authors believe they are writing one theme but end up writing another. Some authors write from a definite theme. It’s the driving force behind every word placed on the page. Theme is elusive and transcendent, making it one the most exciting parts of a novel.

In summation, theme is about exploring ideas, morals, and beliefs, but not necessarily about answering any questions. Theme often reveals something universal about the human condition. It shakes loose the status quo and opens readers to a world of new possibilities. Novels take characters on journeys (plots). These journeys take characters through the wringer and in the end readers will draw conclusions about life. AN example theme might be the moral question of whether it is ever acceptable to kill a person. In a story about a criminal recently released from prison, you might find that the criminal was a murder and instantly decide to dislike her. But as the story progresses you learn she was a battered spouse, an educated woman, a parent, a kind neighbor, someone’s daughter… that she was raised “right” but make the horrible decision to kill… and you realize she is a woman with whom you sympathize. As you learn her motivations perhaps you come to understand why she killed. It leaves you questioning your previous opinion that it’s never okay to kill. Maybe sometimes it is. That’s a theme – the questioning of whether murder is ever acceptable.

Readers may be challenged to change their ideas, morals or beliefs. They may nod their heads in total agreement about this being the way things are. The conclusions that readers draw from a story -- these thoughts are the theme of a novel.

Theme many seem difficult to grasp. No worries. Many struggle with this complex element of the novel. Creating a theme may even seem excessively difficult. No one ever said a novel is easy to write.

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  • Thank you Molly! I truly appreciate not only the information you share but the examples you add to it. I've read a few of your articles now and I'm becoming a fan.

  • Theme is hard. They are often redundant. I feel mine should be What real mother gives her child away.  As you said above the story is in finding the extenuation circumstances. This isn't about the mother, its about the daughter.  Much like the TLC series-So who do you think you are? 

  • I look at the odds my characters are facing, and often I see the theme developing from that, even though in the beginning I had no idea that was where I was sub-consciously headed.

  • can there be more than one theme in a story?