This essay is adapted from Advanced Plotting, available at Amazon (paperback or Kindle, free in KU) or Barnes & Noble (paperback).
Most writers focus on characters, plot, or both as they write. Setting may play a small or large role. But one element that is sometimes neglected is theme.
Writers shouldn’t “preach” in their fiction, of course. Readers generally want an entertaining story, not a lecture. But every work of fiction does include a theme. (Really. I’ve led workshops where we try to come up with an example that doesn’t, but if you think about it, everything seems to have some kind of theme. Even a simple haiku may have a theme about the beauty of nature, while a newspaper report might point out the dangers of our modern world.)
Yet many writers, even advanced ones, suffer from a thematic challenge: the theme may be unclear, perhaps even to the writer herself.
Author Holly Cupala says, “Throughout the writing of Tell Me A Secret, I would hit on something and think, This is the theme! Then a little later, No, this is the theme. It seems to be an evolving — or perhaps devolving — process, getting to the heart of the story, layer by layer. I even found an old blog of mine where I thought I’d hit on the theme and had the same experience — the chills, the thunderous weight of the moment you realize, ‘Wait, wait, wait. This is the theme.’ I think on some level I’ve been right every time, chipping away at the complex layers of what it means to write something as truthfully as possible.”
As this successful novelist shows, you don’t always have to know your theme before you start. Sometimes you may discover your message as you write the story. Or you may start with one idea in mind and change it as you go. You may even realize that you don’t quite believe your original theme — writing the story may help you explore new aspects of that idea, uncovering complexities and contradictions. This can result in a deeper, more meaningful story, so let that process unfold.
Uma Krishnaswami says, “I did not know the theme of Naming Maya until I was through the fifth draft. I never thought of it as theme, even then, because words like ‘theme’ that come from literary criticism rather than craft tend to shut me down. Instead I spent a lot of time asking myself, ‘What is this story really about? What does Maya long for?’ She thinks she wants her father back but that wasn’t the want that drove the book. I wrote myself fake jacket blurbs, trying to get at that elusive heart. By that time I was well into my sixth draft. The thematic through-line of identity emerged quite suddenly one day.”
She adds, “Truthfully, I am not sure that we should be thinking too much, too soon, about theme. It’s a fragile concept, and we need to allow it to come out of the subconscious mind, which is where the best writing takes place. In my opinion, when themes are planted in place too intentionally, stories come across as heavy-handed and with the author’s stamp far too clearly imprinted.”
Focusing too much on a specific theme at the beginning can result in stiff characters, a clunky plot, and that dreaded preachiness. But you should definitely know your theme before you finish your final draft. That way you can edit to make sure your story best supports your theme.
My World View
When trying to identify your theme, start big and then narrow your focus. Can you define your theme in one word? Is it about love, hope, courage, sacrifice? Once you’ve identified that word, try to state your theme as a single, clear sentence. What do you want to say about that word? For example, if your novel is about sacrifice, what about it? Is your character making sacrifices for her own future, for a loved one, for her country, for an ideal? What does she have to sacrifice? Narrowing in on the specifics can help you pinpoint your theme.
Once you’ve clarified your theme, work backward. Does your novel truly support it? Maybe you’ve decided that your theme is “The greater good is more important than the individual’s desire.” In that case, your main character should be giving up a desire in order to help a larger group. But perhaps you liked your character so much that you ended with her helping the group and getting what she wanted as well. That weakens your message, and suggests a different theme, “Good will be rewarded.” You might want to reconsider your ending.
Try to envision all the different messages someone could get from your story. I’ve read several unpublished children’s stories about young animal characters who are ostracized because of some physical flaw. Then something happens that requires their particular abilities. These writers are trying to say that everyone has special qualities or that a perceived flaw can turn out to be a strength. But on the other hand, these stories could suggest that you won’t be accepted unless you prove yourself through heroic action. That might encourage kids to look for ways to show off, rather than to accept themselves as they are.
Having readers miss your intended theme can become a big problem, if they are seeing messages that go against your beliefs. Find a few people to read your story — ideally people among your target audience — and ask them what message they take away. Make sure their response is in line with your ideals.
Don’t expect your readers to pick out your theme exactly, however. If they do, you’re probably not being subtle enough. Just make sure they find a valuable message. In my Mayan historical adventure, The Well of Sacrifice, I knew my main theme: make your own decisions and stand on your own. My heroine, Eveningstar, learns that she can’t depend on her heroic older brother, her parents, the government, or religion to solve the city’s problems. When they all fail her, she has to act by herself.
One young reader wrote me and said, “The book…helped me think to never give up, even in the worst of times, just like what happened to Eveningstar.” I’m happy to inspire a reader to “never give up,” even if that wasn’t my main theme. And perhaps readers will be subtly influenced by my primary message, even if they don’t recognize it while reading.
Too Many Messages?
For younger readers and short stories, you need to keep the theme simple. The longer the story or novel, and the older the reader, the more complex you can be. At first a book may appear to be a humorous romance, but as the story unfolds, it may reveal a theme about honesty in relationships.
Your theme doesn’t have to be obvious from your first paragraph, and probably shouldn’t be. In fact, the theme may only be clear from the final twist in the story. The theme can be revealed through what the main character learns, how she changes, what she gains or loses. In my mystery in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, the main character initially wants to win a dance contest. When a friend disappears, she must choose between preparing for the contest or searching for her friend. The decision she makes, and its repercussions, reveal the theme in the last chapter of the book.
As part of your revisions (or in the planning stage, if you are really organized), work on your character in order to set up your theme. Use her virtues and vices. How will her strengths help her? What weaknesses does she have to overcome? Make sure these tie into the theme. If your character must learn about honesty, make sure that it will be possible but difficult for her. Maybe she craves intimacy but is afraid no one will like her if she shows her true self.
For longer works, think about how you can use other characters or subplots to support or expand on your theme. Maybe your main character learns to be honest in her relationships, and so develops a loving connection with her boyfriend. In contrast, her friend might keep lying in order to make a good impression, and get dumped or wind up with a shallow, dissatisfying relationship. A subplot with the main character’s divorced parents could explore the theme in yet another way.
Although you should be able to clearly identify a single main theme, you may have additional themes. Holly Cupala says, “The theme I seem to be writing is that you can’t find yourself in other people. It’s very much there in Tell Me A Secret as well as Don’t Breathe a Word. Then there are the peripheral themes — looking to the past for meaning versus looking to the future for purpose, wanting to be loved for who you are, trading blame for hope.”
Multiple themes can give a novel extra depth and power. However, don’t let your story get cluttered with too many themes, especially wildly different ones. If you try to share everything you believe about life in one story, it will just feel cluttered and confusing. Focus on one primary theme, and save the others for different works.
Do you think about theme in your writing? At what stage?
Advanced Plotting is designed for the intermediate and advanced writer: you’ve finished a few manuscripts, read books and articles on writing, taken some classes, attended conferences. But you still struggle with plot, or suspect that your plotting needs work.
This really is helping me a lot. It's written beautifully and to-the-point. The essays really help you zero in on your own problems in your manuscript. The Plot Outline Exercise is a great tool!
I just read and—dissected—your well written book: Advanced Plotting. It's now highlighted in bright orange and littered with many of those little 3M sticky labels. GOOD JOB. There are too many just-for-beginners books out there. Yours was a delight.
Advanced Plotting is helping me to be more focused, to stop and ask the right questions, to dig deeper.
Advanced Plotting is available at Amazon (paperback or Kindle, free in KU) or Barnes & Noble (paperback).
Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.