Theme: hard to define and tricky to convey. It’s like a monster you can only see from the corner of your eye. Still, you know it’s there, and it has a massive impact on your story’s weight and quality. So, let’s grab the monster by the gills and get a good look.
The Discussion Under the Story
If you’ve ever had an argument with a loved one, you probably know how subtext works. You shout at your partner about not doing the dishes, and they shout about a long day at work. Maybe you’ve argued about dishes before, and those previous arguments get dragged back to the surface. On some level, yes, you are arguing about dishes. However, there are a lot of things you aren’t saying that fuel the argument. You feel abandoned, like your partner doesn’t pay attention to your needs anymore. Or maybe you feel taken for granted.
A teacher once told me all divorces begin with the dishes.
Those feelings under the argument are a hint at theme. Maybe your theme is abandonment or how great love can crumble under everyday mediocrity.
A theme is a ghost behind the words readers catch glimpses of time and time again. It may be addressed directly, or it may only appear with careful study. The Hunger Games’ theme is war’s corruption. No one wins, and even the heroes walk away tainted and scarred. The Chronicles of Narnia is technically an allegory, so it’s theme always comes back to faith. The Green Mile discusses the humanity of the death penalty.
Not all themes appear so readily. We all spent a month or two in high school unpacking The Great Gatsby to find it’s theme (say it with me now), the decay and farce of the American dream.
Due to its nebulous nature, theme can be hard to point out in a well-constructed story. It’s like the dots of glue holding together a sturdy chair – invisible – at least at first glance. If you know how to make chairs, you can find the glue, but if you just glance at the chair in passing, or use it as it’s meant to be used, you won’t be thinking about the glue.
This benefits a lot of literary stories that feature meandering plots and loose connections between multiple plots. Cloud Atlas is a marvelous example. The theme makes the book work, even when the reader isn’t sure why it’s working.
When Do I Pick My Theme?
You don’t really. Theme should emerge organically as you write. This is one of those things you dig up in editing. A few authors know their theme as they write, but you should try not to think about it. While discreet editing shifts coax your theme to the surface, writing with theme in mind often drowns your story in a sermon. Funnily enough, this may accidentally shift the theme of your book.
The best stories carry hidden messages, and those exist in theme. Don’t think about it as you write, but take notes as you edit, and you’ll be surprised what you find. Like the rest of us, you’ll likely find your theme was there waiting for you all along.