In my time as an intern at a publishing house, themes emerged as an unlikely yet important factor in defining the most enjoyable and publishable reads. At once simple yet difficult to define, themes are the conceptual framework that ideas spring from and exist in. Despite being typically associated with the realm of readers and critiques rather than writers, they are an essential tool to understand and keep at-the-ready in your writer’s tool kit. Let’s look more deeply into this underrated literary device…
What Are Themes?
Themes are your story’s message, morals, lessons, driving concepts, key ideas and big questions. They can stem from something concrete such as war, money or family, but they are abstract in nature.
While the subject of a work is described concretely in terms of its action (e.g. ‘the adventures of a newcomer in the big city’), its theme or themes will be described in more abstract terms (e.g. love, war, revenge, betrayal, fate, etc.).” The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms
Most themes are “universal”, meaning they can be understood in concept by almost everyone, regardless of race or nationality. They stem from basic human experiences, understanding and lack of understanding. While tricky to pin down with a definition, most people understand theme innately – but it’s important to know that theme is not plot, premise, conflict or concept.
Why Are They Important?
Whether you’ve planned it or not, chances are your story has at least one theme. And that theme affects everything: the characters, the plot and the setting. Such a powerful and natural device deserves all the attention you can give it.
The theme of any literary work is the base topic or focus that acts as a foundation for the entire literary piece. The theme links all aspects of the literary work with one another and is basically the main subject.” Literary Devices
Thanks mainly to our education system, most readers process stories through themes, so it’s important to be aware of them when you’re writing. Readers may not know what it’s like to be a super-spy, but they understand love and betrayal. Themes are the key to connecting your reader with a foreign experience.
Coherence and Unity
Themes can bring plots, subplots, scenes, settings and characters together as a whole, coherent piece of work. If your work is long enough to have subplots and side characters, they shouldn’t be there just to fill in pages. A subplot’s purpose could be to develop characters or setting, but for it to really feel a part of the story, it should work to develop the same theme/s as the main plot.
Most writers don’t write with a theme in mind. There’s no rule about when you should start thinking about themes. For a first draft, not thinking of them can be beneficial. Themes emerge naturally in stories, and focusing on other literary devices at first can help you stop sliding into cliché. But if you write a draft and then realise your themes are all over the place, it may take a fair bit of work and reimagining to fix them. The first step when working with themes is, obviously, identifying them. From there, you can make sure they're performing their role as the story’s framework.
More likely than not, high school English has you well-equipped for identifying themes. A theme can be described as a key lesson or question that drives your story or characters. But sometimes you’re so close to the story that it’s harder to see the bigger picture. This is one of those cases where it’s useful to have a writing buddy, but in the circumstance that you’re lacking one, most people should be able to identify a theme in a story.
Theme doesn't have to be profound, but it must always be true to the storyteller. One of the most fundamental motives for writing novels is to reveal the truth as you see it, to share your life experiences and show people what this world looks like through your eyes.” Harvey Chapman
Sometimes the theme you identify doesn’t ring quite right. Trust your writer’s instinct and take some time to ponder the concept and what it means to you regardless of the story. Then, with a new theme (or simply a new angle on the theme), get writing.
Sometimes themes are related and work together to strengthen each other, such as the themes of friendship, love and betrayal; others such as family, the environment and life purpose can detract from each other if not well thought out.
Combining too many non-related themes in one work can be messy. When was the last time you read a story that successfully contained the themes of loyalty, friendship, religion, time, the environment, loss, the law, racism and health? Maybe three or four themes from this list could play out in a story, with additional related minor themes. But stretching a story across too many unrelated themes can lead to confusion, superficiality and a lack of unity.
Thematic Write / Edit
Now you know your themes, it’s time to write or edit with these firmly in mind. If you find a scene or a side-comment from a character touches on another theme, seriously think about whether it is necessary. If not, change or delete it. If it is, think of ways to achieve the same goal without involving a new theme.
Everything can build and develop theme. Plot, motifs and characters are great places to start, but the list is endless. Even setting can tie into theme through the way it affects atmosphere and meaning. If your theme’s idea of “love conquers all” reaches its peak in a graveyard, you’d want to be aiming for a Romeo & Juliet style of “love conquers all, even death”.
If you’re working on a theme involving sacrifice, you don’t want to have your characters making sacrifices in every chapter. Theme works best when it’s subtle.” Melissa Donovan
Sticking to your themes is important but, having said that, so is subtlety. Theme is important, but so are plot, characters and plausibility. A useful tip for not getting too repetitive with your theme is to look at it from different or opposing perspectives. Consider the different ways love is portrayed in Pride and Prejudice, all the while leading to the one idea of marrying for love.
Theme is life itself, as manifested in our stories, as seen through our characters, and as experienced through our plots.” Courtney Carpenter
Themes are the framework of stories – a literary device that shouldn’t be forgotten. They add meaning to your work, draw your reader in and pull everything together as a whole. Be sure to keep this tool close by whenever you write.