Friday, July 29, 2011

Day 9: Finding Focus with Theme

Remember when we talked about the importance of getting at the core of your novel?  Yeah, apparently I didn't heed my own advice because about 50% through my WIP I noticed my characters were acting inconsistently and the plot, though certainly telling a story, was missing purpose.  While digging through writerly "how-to" books and blog posts I came across the magic ingredient that, despite knowing about all along, I had failed to understand it's importance.  In a word: THEME.

The Purpose of Theme.  What is it about books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Gone With the Wind that have English Literature PhD's still studying and dissecting them today?  Obviously marvelous writing and great characters are key, but term papers and book group discussions are most often sustained by the topic of theme.  The theme will never be directly stated, but it is the unifying idea that ties all events of the book and all decisions of the characters together.  It is what the reader takes away from the story and attempts to see in their own life or society.

So can we say that To Kill a Mockingbird is a book about racism and Gone With the Wind is a book about war?  Sure, but that wouldn't be identifying the novels' themes.  A theme is more than a one or two-word idea; it is a statement that makes clear the overarching subject of your work.  For example, one of the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird (the story has several) could be that "one's moral convictions are worth fighting for, even at the risk of being reviled" (Rosemary Goring, The Herald).  A theme example from Gone With the Wind would be how some people survive while others fail in times of catastrophes and upheaval.

Discovering Your Story's Theme.  Like the examples cited above your story will likely contain more than one theme, but there should be a central theme that takes precedence over the others found in your story.  How can you whittle through the words to find it?  With these three steps from the amazing book Writing Great Books for Young Adults, by Regina Brooks.

       1.  Pick a Topic.  The topic is essentially the one or two-word idea that we discussed above.  This is the jumping off point for discovering your story's theme.  A few examples of topic might be:
    • Love (um, definitely a personal favorite)
    • Forgiveness
    • Regret
    • Guilt.... (anyone else notice these are getting a bit depressing...)
    • Generosity (whew, that's better)
    • Kindness
    • Respect
       2.   Ask Yourself Questions.  Step back and analyze  moments in your story when this topic is evident.  A few examples of questions to ask might be, when did this topic first appear in the story?  Was it influenced by the character's past?  When must the character face off with this topic?  What has the character learned about the topic by the close of the novel?  See the way a character is shaped by a topic should help you nail down your novel's theme.

       3.   State the Theme.  The goal is to reach a concise sentence that will accurately describe your story's theme so that, when asked what your novel is about, you have a solid answer.  Your theme will not include any names of characters or settings in history.  It should be so universal that it is interchangeable regardless of time, place, or people.  This is what makes it relatable to your readers.

            There isn't necessarily a "how-to" recipe for stating the theme, but the following examples might help you understand better what it is to have a statement of theme:
    • Jealousy can be destructive.  (The Fairest)
    • Memories of friendship can last forever.  (Bridge to Terabithia)
    • There may be other people in the world like us.  (The Borrowers)
    • A human heart can be heavy with secrets.  (The Hatchet)
    • Sometimes we have to accept change even if we don't want to.  (Julie of the Wolves)
Have you struggled to find your novel's theme?  How were you able to discover it?

MY DAY 9:  I spent the day going back and forth between writing my manuscript and continuing my outline.  Thus far I feel the time spent working on the outline has paid off, as I have been able to move quickly from scene to scene without feeling stuck.  Also advantageous: I know that every scene has a meaning and a purpose and is working to further the plot or characterization.


  1. I enjoyed reading this! I, too, am a mom trying to serve my inner writing goddess and my family at the same time. I love both, but really need a live-in maid to do everything that needs to be done!

  2. Oh boy, Kirsten, do I ever hear you on that one! And if writing and house-keeping and mothering and wife-ing aren't enough, then you have to do the online socializing too. Fun yes, but VERY time consuming.

    (Speaking of online socializing, I popped over to your site and LOVE some of you story ideas! The "All For Emma" one sounds like just the kind of romance I'm into!"