Developing a Theme
Most great novels have a theme, whether intended by the author or deduced by admiring readers is sometimes hard to tell. Theming your novel can enhance its appeal to your readers.
What is a theme?
There is of course the literary definition and the on-line Masterclass is an excellent source on that aspect. But, for me, a theme in a novel works when it gives me a feeling that I have learned something about myself or the world which is deep and true. It might follow the typical literary themes of courage, death, friendship, revenge, or love but more important than the label is the visceral understanding I experience. In fact, I have finished novels where I know I have been changed even though I have trouble putting into words what I’ve learned.
Naturally, and reasonably, you want to know when I have experienced it to see if you agree with my analysis. I’ll do a short list with a note on how they moved/informed me. But I really want to focus on how to do it.
1984 by George Orwell. Even if it’s hopeless, you can stand up for what you believe.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Faith requires sacrifice and discipline.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A blinkered view can distort your life.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. How my life should be (turned out to be completely false but hey, I was ten at the time).
Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—enough said
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I can counterfeit the gold and then believe it true.
A theme can’t be force-fed
A novel with a theme can have a powerful and even lasting effect on your reader so of course you want to have one.
But as I have mentioned before, I don’t think it works to decide a priori the path the novel will take. Doing so can, and often does, produce a stilted, forced result which hits the reader over the head with this is the theme, get it?, rather than allowing her to gradually come to understand.
This is where magic comes in
To create a theme, I first think you have to open yourself to the magic lurking in your story.
Writing the first draft. In the original writing, look for the moments where you’re getting the sense of I think there’s something here. But don’t stop to try to figure out what it is, just keep writing. Write and write. Every once and a while, you’ll probably get that same feeling but just note it and keep writing.
It’s important to keep everything at the feeling stage. Don’t try to name it or the theme. Just write as much as you can from that emotion.
Editing the manuscript. Once the first draft is completed, read it over to identify where that unnamed feeling occurs. Spend some time figuring out what these passages have in common—this is likely where your theme lies.
Strengthening the theme. Now that you understand what the novel means to you, go back over the manuscript to see where you can add or tweak scenes to reinforce the theme in a non-hit-over-the-head way.
So, in short, don’t look for your theme—let it find you.