As a writer, you probably know the elements that make up any piece of fiction. If you read this column you definitely should – I spend enough time banging on about them. By elements, I’m talking about the building blocks that make up fiction writing – concept, plot, character, dialogue and so on. These are all pretty tangible, they’re right there on the page – you can point to a paragraph and say ‘That’s the plot’ or ‘there’s some dialogue right there’.
There are some other elements of writing that are not so perceptible. Elements that might not even be noticed at all by the reader, except subconsciously. These include tone, sub-text, and the most important, Theme.
Theme is essentially the central message or idea explored by a story. Without a theme, the story is just describing a bunch of things that happen.
The theme might be as simple as ‘Love-Conquers-All’ or ‘Overcoming Adversity’, or it might be something more complex like ‘Revenge is best served cold’. A story might also have more than one theme running through it – Shakespeare’s plays were famous for successfully exploring a number of themes.
Even if the story never directly spells out the theme (the best stories never do), it should be possible for the reader or viewer to reflect on the story and have an idea of the theme. For that reason, we should always have it at least tucked away in the back of our minds as we write.
On the conveniently-titled website, ‘How To Write A Book Now’, Glen Strathy tips his hat to Theme, telling us that it encompasses and affects all of the more elements of fiction. He proposes that theme, in fact, goes right to the core of why we write in the first place.
Chuck Wendig is a novelist and screenwriter and so has plenty of experience exploring and developing theme. In his ’25 things we should know about Themes,’ he suggests that Theme is an argument and that, once it’s established, the other elements of the story should go towards supporting that argument.
One of the main problems with Theme is that it is easily confusable with other elements of writing, the main culprit being Plot. There are, of course, substantial differences between the two and, if we know broad strokes of each, we will gradually discover them as we write. But to determine the differences in more detail, it’s worth having a look at DifferenceBetween.net.
Best-selling author of the Puzzle series of novels, Laurence O’Bryan, knows a thing or two about theme. In fact, he goes as far as to say that Theme is the most important part of writing. He suggests that using an exciting theme to expand on an existing genre like Crime or Romance is a step in the right direction to a great (and commercially successful) story.
If you’re still not quite sure what theme you want to run through your story, it might be worth checking out the Theme Listings at about.com. Here, potential story themes are listed by category and, for those of us starting out on a new story, these lists can be used to pick a theme that excites us and compels us to write. We can then use the theme we’ve selected to develop those other tangible story elements like plot and character.
“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.” – Herman Melville
Here’s The How.
Glen C. Strathy on how to Choose a Theme for Your Novel.
“Theme essentially concerns the lessons, the wisdom, the morale contained within a story.”
Twenty-Five’s The Magic Number.
Chuck Wendig’s top 25 tips on knowing your theme.
“Every story’s trying to say something. It’s trying to beam an idea, a message, into the minds of the readers.”
Not Just Any Theme. A Great Theme.
Laurence O’Bryan on how the theme can make a good story great.
“Shiny, glistening literary baubles lack substance for me. I want a strong theme.”
Spot The Difference.
How to differentiate between Theme and Plot.
“In the simplest explanation, a plot is synonymous to the storyline, whereas the theme is more the main thought or idea being tackled.”
Try A Free Sample.
Some examples of themes. Pick one for your next story.
“A theme should be a statement that expresses a universal message.”