Theme is often misunderstood or even ignored by the beginning writer and also by some who claim experience in the writing world. In her book Write Away, Elizabeth George says “…most novels are unified around their theme. This—the theme—is the basic truth about which you are writing, the idea you’re playing with..., or the point you are attempting to make.” This internationally best
selling novelist goes on to say that even if theme is not addressed directly, the unification of the subplots will make it clear to the reader.
The theme in fiction and nonfiction is the central idea, or focus, that runs through the entire story. For instance, most fairy tales use the theme of good vs. evil. We select a theme from both good and bad principles of life—guilt, greed, revenge, kindness, service to others, and unconditional love are all possible subjects for a theme in a story. Try making a list of conceivable themes for future stories.
The story you write should illustrate the theme without preaching to the reader. Few readers want to be told what the theme is. It’s much more fun to figure it out as you read. The theme should come through in subtle ways. If it doesn’t, it’s time to go back, rethink and revise. Ask yourself what message you want the reader to take away.
Some people confuse theme and plot. An author friend who writes historical fiction says that what your characters do in a story is your plot, but what they learn is the theme. The plot should illustrate your theme and leave a lasting impression on the reader.
Do you select a theme and write a story around it? Or should you write a story and see a theme emerge little by little? There is no set rule. Either way works, but you must be careful that you don’t scatter too many themes throughout the story. All that it does is to confuse the reader who might think: What in the world is she trying to tell me? Pick a theme and stay with it.
When you pick up a book for your own pleasure, read with a critical eye. Look for theme in every piece you read. Search for the message the author sends and ask yourself if the plot of the story brought out the theme. With practice, you’ll find it easier to mentally critique the stories you read, and writing your own stories with a theme in mind won’t be nearly so difficult.
Some Points To Remember
- Theme is the central idea, or focus, that runs through the entire story.
- The story should illustrate the theme.
- What characters do is a plot, but what they learn is the theme.
- Let the theme come through the story in subtle ways; don’t preach.