“Theme” is one of those words that can make even the most enthusiastic writer roll her eyes. It brings up memories of English Literature classes, where students have to read and discuss novels in a way that makes watching paint dry seem more appealing. It's a word that instantly transforms fiction from something we enjoy to something we have to study. No matter what memories discussions of theme might bring up for you (I was fortunate enough to have a Lit teacher in high school who made the curriculum as enjoyable as it could be), it's worth taking some time to think about the themes you're trying to convey in your own work.
Why think about your theme? Well, there are a few good reasons to spend some time considering this question as you work on your story or novel. First, it helps you get a clear idea of what your story is actually about, above and beyond the distinctive descriptive elements you use to tell it. Let's say you're writing a science fiction novel where your hero is betrayed by one of his co-workers, set up to take the fall for a crime, and imprisoned on a hard-time penal colony planet where he has to fight to survive, escape, and get his revenge. The theme you focus on in this story will help determine how you write it.
You have several paths you can take to tell this story. If your hero escapes, learns the truth, and gets his revenge, then your major theme would be that people reap what they sow. If, along the way to revenge, the hero decides to take the evidence clearing him to the authorities and let them deal with those who wronged him, your theme would be the importance of not taking the law into your own hands and to let the wheels of Justice turn at their own pace. If you decide to focus your story on the people who framed the fall guy, your story's theme could be the prevalence of corruption at the top. If the main character of your story isn't the guy who was framed but the young attorney who discovers the error and decides to clear him, no matter what risks she faces along the way, then your theme would be the importance of doing what's right. These examples are merely a fraction of what types of themes that type of story could contain. The possibilities are limited only by your ideas. Knowing your theme will help you shape the plot the story will need.
Second, deciding on your story's theme makes developing your characters just a little bit easier. It gives you some idea which of these characters are going to be a major part of the story, and which characters will be the supporting cast. Looking at the examples above, it's clear that if you choose to focus on the theme of doing what's right no matter the risks, then you know your major characters will be the people who are going to uncover the unjust circumstances and rectify them. If you want your story to reflect the idea that corruption is everywhere at the top of society, then the characters responsible for the frame-up will have a larger role in the story than the people trying to right the wrongs. If your theme is about the resilience of the human spirit in the face of adversity, then you might want to focus on the fall guy and the prisoners he meets on the penal colony.
Third, your story's theme is one of those elements that reflects you on the page. Each of us has our own beliefs and opinions, and for writers, every story we write contains something of ourselves in it. By recognizing what we want to tell our readers about the world, we tap into our own inner truths. Sometimes, it can be hard to recognize just how our stories give readers some insight into who we are and what we think, but those personal touches are always there. Thinking about the themes we want to explore in our work helps us understand who we are.
The more we write, the more we see that each of us has a set of themes we visit again and again in our work. Each different story about that theme becomes another brick on the path of understanding ourselves. We're able to share our views of the world through the written word. Those views are our themes.
So, the next time you start a new writing project, take a few moments to think about what you want your story to tell the reader. We write because we want to share something of ourselves with other people, whether it's an unwavering faith in a higher power, a belief in true love, a cynical view of human nature, or something else entirely. Find the themes that motivate you, and your writing will be stronger as a result.
Thanks for reading, and keep writing!
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