Identifying Your Themes

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Author-me is part of a wonderful group called the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit, a gang of wonderful young adult writers who join together to promote each other’s work during our publication months.  One of my regular questions over the past year has been, “Do you think in themes and, if so, what’s the theme of your book?”  Answers have varied.  Some authors knew going into the writing exactly what they wanted to say, others realized somewhere along the line that there was a message embedded in the story they wanted to tell.  Without fail, every novel will have a theme…something at its emotional heart.

I bring this up because it’s important for an author to identify his or her themes for several reasons.  Perhaps the most important is that knowing what’s at the heart of your story helps you develop the character arc.  Each and every novel you write should involve change…for the character as well as the world you’re creating.  Comfort is stagnation.  Stagnation is death.  Think of it this way, if your character is untouched by the events that surround her (let’s say ‘her’ for the sake of argument), why should your reader be touched?  Whether it’s about acceptance, redemption, spiritual awakening, learning limits, understanding possibilities, trust or whathaveyou, something in the external storyline will click with the protagonist’s inner journey.  Not that you have to choose just one theme or that you’ll be limited to one protagonist with a single path.  The point is that your story will lack depth if you evolve it without taking into account the emotional arc of your character.  (Though, on the flipside, I’ve also seen novels fail where the plot was completely developed to make a point, so, as in all things, there must be balance.)

It’s also crucial to be in touch with your themes to make sure that you’re not recycling them over and over again.  Now, most authors will have certain inclinations.  For example, I’ve noticed a certain tendency in my own work to write emotionally…well, I want to say constipated, but that will hardly send anyone running to Barnes & Noble…let’s call them inaccessible characters.   My heroines like to deal with the world on their own terms; I like to change the rules on them and see whether they sink or swim.  Kind of like the old witch test.  (Now you all know my dirty little secret.)  Here’s the thing—I’ve seen authors, and I’m certainly not exempt, fall into a rut with themes, so that their stories or characters begin to sound the same.  You do not want a reader to say, for instance, “Oh, her villains always turn out to be the heroes in the end” or “He’ll discover the meaning of family, realize they’re stronger together than they are apart and good will triumph.”  See what I’m saying?  It takes all the suspense out of things.  So, it’s important to be aware of your themes so that you can shake things up, challenge yourself and constantly surprise your readers.

While I’m on the subject of personal journeys and all that, I’m going to veer from the topic of themes just long enough to touch on something tangential.  No path is ever straight or without forks and turns, dead ends, blind alleys or one-way streets.  Neither your character’s internal nor external path should be completely straightforward.  One of my pet peeves is when characters, faced with monumental decisions, somehow know just the right thing to do every time.  Life is full of wrong turns.  Throw one or two into your story, give us consequences, really and truly.  Give us reality in fiction.

There you have it.  I’ve been thinking a lot about themes lately…and pizza, but that hardly seemed a fitting topic for Magical Words!  (Unless, of course, it’s Mystic Pizza.)  Ta!

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14 comments to Identifying Your Themes

  • Thanks for this, Lucienne. I have to admit, when it comes to themes, I’ve always been a serious pantser. I’ll think plot and character arcs through, but not themes. I think there is a danger of over-thinking themes (we don’t want our work sounding like a sermon), but if you don’t think about them AT ALL before going in, that’s no good either.

  • Lucienne, two comments and a question.

    Comment One: I never thought about themes when I wrote mysteries/thrillers. During the writing process, it was enough to catch the bad guy. But when I was done with each book, I could identify the underlying themes, like a vision of a fish swimming lazily underwater.

    Comment two: Now that I’m writing urban fantasy — mysteries set in a world with magic — and a series character, I am finding that it’s too easy to be repeatable (and therefore maybe boring). At least for me.

    Question: Do you think that with series, the themes need to be more clear-cut with each book, closer to the surface, more easily identifiable? Asking because I’m thinking themes right now with the outline of Jane Yellowrock book five.

  • It seems that just about everything in this business is a matter of balance and theme is no different. As Ed points out, too much focus on theme and it can get didactic, but not enough and the story won’t hold together for too long. If I identify the theme too early in my creative process, I’ll over think it and end up on the wrong side of things, so I tend to find the theme as I write the first draft. If it starts too feel too familiar to other things I’ve written, I can course correct as I go. At least, that’s worked for me so far.

    On a completely different note — my wife and I spent our honeymoon (long ago) in Greece. Seeing the pictures from your recent trip that you posted brought back such wonderful memories. No other country feels the same as Greece. To not only be able to see these extremely old ruins, but to actually be able to touch them, walk on them, makes it unbelievable. We always talk about “someday” going back. At least we can enjoy it vicariously through you! Thanks! 🙂

  • I have found that my best work thematically tends to happen when I don’t give it too much thought ahead of time, but rather allow the narrative and characters to “show” me what the book is about at a deeper level. With Thieftaker, for instance, I focused more on plot and character as I wrote, only to find three quarters of the way through the book that I had written a story about one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in a rapidly changing world. When I am too conscious of the theme going into a project, I think I get too heavy-handed with it. But that’s just me.

  • Like Ed, I’m often a pantser on this one, but I absolutely agree that this is a crucial component of a decent novel and I won’t let my pantsing derail that. At some point I have to to stop what I’m doing and ask myself what this book is supposed to be about: not plot, but ideas, issues or–as you say, theme. It’s liek a recurring melody which returns (with variations) in a symphony (do I mean a motif? Maybe). Not to do it seems at very least like a missed opportunity.

  • I don’t think there’s one right way to work on themes with your writing. To an extent, it depends on your goals. For example, with something like The Shawshank Redemption, where the theme is right there in the title, I’m pretty sure the writer’s eye was on the prize the whole time, and that’s fine. Generally, though, I’m more of a pantser (or, as I like to say, organic plotter), so I’m with the bulk of you on this.

    Gwen, I don’t know that it needs to be more clear-cut, but I think as you come to know our characters and your world, they’ll be more likely to suggest themselves more forcefully .

  • I rarely think about the theme too much ahead of time–it usually works better for me if I write and see what themes emerge. Then I can go back and add hints of that theme earlier in the story if need be. But if I write with a theme too much in mind, I think my writing often ends up beating that theme to death.

    I like what you said about ensuring that we don’t recycle themes with our characters. I noticed just recently that I was starting to drift in that direction, so I’ve bee trying out some different writing styles and POVs to try and shake things up.

  • Lucienne, thanks for bringing up this topic! I’ve had several questions rolling around in my head about themes ever since I read AJ’s post on “High Concept” Stories in the new MW Writer’s Companion (which–I would like to point out–is still missing the John Hancocks of one Mr. Hartley and one Ms. Murphy!) If I may paraphrase, he mentioned in the post that even if you’re not necessarily writing a high-concept story, thinking up a “snappy log line” can help keep a story focused.

    So my questions: Is a log line or a “high concept premise” the same thing as a theme? Can it be? Should it be? And if not, forgive my ignorance but, what’s the difference between a log line and a theme?

  • If I might chime in in answer to Raven’s query, I’d say a log line is a short summary usually for marketing purposes (like the mini sentence summaries in TV guide) and is not necessarily thematic at all. “Giant shark terrorizes New England seas side town” is a log line, but it’s all plot, not theme. If you think about JAWS, the theme might be something about overcoming your fears/insecurities in order to achieve a goal (Brody is terrified of water, the shark expert has to adjust to a blue collar environment etc.). I think of theme as conceptual, while most log lines are plot driven.

  • I recently started to discover the fascination of themes, as well as the themes in my own writing, so it was really great to read this post. I have noticed unconscious patterns playing out in my plottings, so I’ll have to watch out for making them too similar.

    Still, I would guess that similar themes could be played around with and ‘re-done’ in different ways (I say that knowing that at least a few of my themes probably won’t relinquish their place as the backbone of my writings). It reminds me a bit of what we’re told about subplots, how they should re-inforce or contrast the main plot/theme. At any rate, there are my musings.

  • Theme. The one I struggle with. I don’t know what it is about theme for me that defies definition. It’s not that I don’t understand what a theme is, or that I can’t easily identify or understand it in other people’s writing, but I have such a hard time identifying it in my own. I always feel like that kid in 9th grade cobbling together an explanation of Great Expectations from listening in class. “It’s about…people from different backgrounds…finding humanity…in each other…and then saving the world. Sort of.”

    Any tips?

  • AJ, you said it better than I could have. Thanks!

    LScribeHarris, I’d say see if your critique partner or group can offer suggestions. Sometimes it’s hard to get a clear perspective on your own work, but finding one will help immensely in the shaping of the story.

  • Thought provoking post, Lucienne. After reading your post and the comments from the other writers, I had a thought for how one might identify theme.

    When you look at your plot and story, ask yourself, “why should my readers care about the outcome?” The answer to that question probably reflects your theme.

    I would be hard pressed to identify the theme in a number of books I’ve read. I don’t know if that’s because the theme is too subtle for me, or if it’s because there isn’t one. Realistically, I suspect that any interesting story has a theme in there somewhere…or it just wouldn’t be that interesting.

    As a reader, I also agree with those who commented that theme shouldn’t be the focus of the story. If I feel that the author has a thematic “agenda” and the story is just a delivery mechanism, I’ll put it down as “too preachy” and move on.

  • Absolutely. When it comes to balancing our the elements in your story, everything in moderation is a pretty good mantra.