Theme: The Secret Sauce to Elevate Your Writing

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Have you ever been to a fabulous restaurant and ordered something because you know, like, and recognize it? I’m sure most of us share that experience. Often, the result is pleasant, not particularly revelatory, but enjoyable. But every now and then…wow. Something about that dish just blows us away. It makes us experience it in a whole new way. You go home and just can’t stop thinking about it.

Let’s break down that metaphor for writing, shall we? Our readers search for books like ours because they like something about them superficially: the cover, the blurb, the plot, the genre. If you’ve done the work and put a good story together, the meal (aka, your book) should satisfy their appetite. But what’s that secret sauce, that delicious extra that will blow them away? While there might be a few factors involved, more often than not, it comes down to theme.

Theme Has Power

So, just what is theme?

The tough thing about describing theme is that it’s a philosophical concept. Clear as mud, right? Here’s what it isn’t:

  • It’s not plot.
  • Theme is not character arc.
  • It’s also not the moral lesson of the story.

Theme is the heart of the story. Another metaphor—and here I just called it the secret sauce. I promise, I’m going to try to break it down. More concretely: theme is the message the author wants to convey to the reader. Done right, it can be powerfully moving. Theme can inspire a reader to think about a concept in a new way or to consider a universal truth they had never verbalized.

Developing Theme

Writers tend to develop stories from different sources but, most often, they tend to start with an interesting plot or a fun idea and then think of the theme. Occasionally, though, a writer will start their novel by first saying—what do I want readers to get out of this?

Both are completely valid ways to start developing theme. But for those who may be struggling to think of a theme to incorporate into the story, one of the best things to do is to step back from your plot and analyze:

  1. The obstacle
  2. The lesson the protagonist learns as a result of their experience

For example:

  1. A group of boys crash land on an island and must try to survive.
  2. The boys learn that they can become savage in grappling for power, despite their best effort to push order.

The theme of the above example, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, in case you didn’t read it, is that human nature tends toward destructive, savage behavior and that power corrupts. There are other lessons to be learned from this brilliant book, which I highly recommend to look up.

Incorporating Theme

Writers don’t necessarily have to pick only one theme for their novels—you can have a few, in fact—but what is important: threading theme throughout your book. It should be skillfully woven into each major obstacle your character must overcome. The more your character has to encounter situations where they are forced to make decisions that speak to the theme, the clearer your theme will be.

To get you started, here are some themes that often see repetition throughout literature:

  1. Love is the greatest gift
  2. The darkness of human nature tends to destruction and chaos
  3. Friendship can help a person overcome the most difficult challenge
  4. Nature gives us freedom to be ourselves
  5. Evildoers always get their comeuppance/ Good conquers evil

These ideas tend to come up throughout many novels, but don’t limit yourself. Just remember: if you want your readers to have a take away that keeps their minds churning long after they’ve closed the pages of your book, think on theme.

Do you have a topic you would like us to cover? Let us know about your suggestion. 

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About Author

Annabelle McCormack is an author and photographer from Baltimore, Maryland. When she's not busy writing, she's chasing around her five kids and enjoying life in the country. To follow her journey, check out @annabellemccormack on Instagram, where she posts regularly about her adventures.

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