Monday, October 26, 2015

Theme is your friend

By: Ann S. Hill

People read fiction to be entertained, inspired, or thrilled. We choose novels that we hope will help us escape our humdrum existence for a more meaningful and flamboyant adventure where we might experience victory against our foes, be inspired by an ideal relationship, or be thrilled by an unusual experience, albeit vicariously. However, if there is no message in the story, the conflict and heroic acts are no more interesting than watching our kids fight a light saber war while we try to prepare dinner.

So how do writers deliver excitement with meaning? There are so many requirements, but today I draw attention to the necessity of theme. Should the writer neglect to present a theme, most readers will find that his work falls flat. The reader may not know why. It just does.



Theme is an undercurrent, not a tsunami, and should be unobtrusive to the reader. However, its absence will be felt though perhaps not acknowledged. What is theme and how does one incorporate it?

Theme is that implied conclusion about life or the human condition that unfolds as characters move through the plot. Our characters face circumstances which force them to make difficult decisions, act courageously, and grow internally. In the process, they uncover certain truths, ideas, or concepts about the world in which they live.

Possible themes might relate to injustice, faith, loss of innocence, greed, or forgiveness. Consider some of your favorite works. What were their themes? Maybe you recall a book that left you unsatisfied. Did it lack a significant theme?

Writers must be careful that our message whispers throughout our work. No direct statements, no lectures, no preaching. The presence of theme should be perceived almost subconsciously. And yet it is there, implicit in every step of the plot.

Suppose I construct a story line in which my main character is pitted against an antagonist who wins in the end. A difficult concept that I don’t advise. Ideally my theme is “The good don’t always win,” and I have taken care to develop this message throughout the book. If not, the reader will only be confused. “Why didn’t the hero succeed?” In this case, my reader has not been prepared by a consistency of theme to accept the conclusion to my plot. He is justifiably disappointed.

Working with theme isn’t easy. One false move, and the jig is up. The reader has seen the puppet strings, and there is no longer any chance for suspension of disbelief. Even Aesop, with his obvious themes, allowed the reader to draw his own conclusions. We have a much harder task. We are not writing fables. Subtlety is a must.


If this requirement makes you nervous, I have good news. Your theme will naturally reveal itself through the unrolling of your plot if plot points have been set up with your message in mind. From that point on, write your story and your theme will permeate every line of dialogue and each event. Action, conflict, and heroic acts will grab a reader. But unless there is a moment of insight because of them, he’ll close your book with a weary sigh. Or worse, throw it against the wall. Incorporate this important ingredient, and he will recommend your book to all his friends. Or, let’s dream. You might become a best-selling author. If this advice helps propel you there, be sure to thank me in your credits.



About the writer:  After hearing the call to write in her thirties, Ann set the ambition aside while life happened. Now that she has retired from her career as a dentist and her children are adults, she is seriously attacking that parked ambition. She spends significant time on her true passion and has recently completed her first novel, Wait for Me. She has written several short stories and is currently working on a concept for her second novel. In the meantime, she remains a voracious reader and film aficionado.