By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund
In interview questions I'm often asked, "What is the message you'd like readers to take away from your book?" or "What is the theme of your book?"
Those kinds of questions are deep and aren't necessarily easy to answer.
What exactly is a theme? And how do we go about developing one?
In his book for screen writers, The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams gives an intense, very detailed look at message vs. theme vs. moral premise. He boils it down into an almost scientific distinction. And while I appreciate the breakdown, it's a little confusing and I'm not sure that we as writers need to get bogged down with trying to decipher between all the terms.
Whether we call it message, theme, or moral premise, the key is coming up with a universal truth that touches the heart of readers. Williams says, "Audiences come to stories looking for answers or hints about life's meaning. And when stories give them new insights, they're given fresh hope for a better future."
He defines this concept as "the dramatic heart" or the "practical lesson" of a story.
Ultimately a theme will be an over-arching and controlling idea that is woven throughout the story that teaches, inspires, or otherwise draws in a reader so that they can relate to the characters.
Perhaps our readers won't always be able to directly point out what the theme of the book is, but it will resonate with them and connect them to the story on a deeper level. In fact, a good storyteller should work at weaving in the theme so that readers don't see it. They just feel it.
What a theme is NOT:
–It is NOT preaching at our readers.
–It is NOT giving a political tirade.
–It is NOT using a story as our soap box.
–It is NOT badgering our readers into believing something.
Instead a theme is the whisper of a powerful and transcending truth that echoes deeply within the human soul. It's the aura and beauty that readers can cling to and remember long after they close the pages.
Themes will vary, but the more widely appealing we can make our themes, the broader audience we'll reach. Of course there will be writers who may hone in on narrower themes that will appeal to a niche audience. And that's oaky too. But writers need to recognize that the more universal the theme, the more readers will be able to relate.
So what are some common themes? Here are a few:
–Perseverance leads to growth.
–True love is difficult to vanquish.
–Letting go of bitterness and learning to forgive is freeing.
–Truthfulness leads to hope and life.
–Humility is the handmaiden of honor.
Obviously there are many, many more universal themes. Once we know the main theme of our book, then we're in a position to use that as a measuring stick that keeps our story moving forward with intentionality:
–Theme can be used in both the external and internal plot. Whatever the character is dealing with internally as a result of the theme can also show up in the external plot.
For example in A Noble Groom my hero is in the habit of running away from problems. He has to learn that running away leads to cowardice, but staying and fighting develops courage. He does this on two levels. Externally he physically turns himself around and races into the heart of a ferocious wild fire to fight to save the family he's come to love. And internally he has to stop running from his fear of marriage. The theme shows up both externally and internally.
–Theme can be used in symbols throughout our story. We can place strategic items within the lives of our characters that mirror the theme.
For example, in The Doctor's Lady my heroine has a cameo pin. The pin represents her ties to her family and all that's important to her. Throughout the book she's learning that letting go of prejudices leads to greater opportunities to love. She has to let go of her past expectations and the life she once knew. At the end of the book she fulfills the theme symbolically by giving her cameo pin to an Indian woman.
Besides plot and symbols, theme can show up in lots of other places throughout our books. We can weave it into character growth, setting, dialogue, backstory, etc. The trick is to do so invisibly so that reader doesn't know we're doing it. But in the end, the story resonates within them because the truth touches them deeply.
How much thought do you put into developing the themes of your books? Do you think it's necessary for a book to have a theme? Why or why not?