Finding Your Theme

Randy Ingermanson’s book, Writing Fiction For Dummies, has an excellent chapter on Theme. My favorite part was the section of twenty examples. Seeing a theme statement in the book is much easier than trying to envision one myself. I offered some of those examples in my previous post. The next section I want to dwell on is called “Finding Your Theme.”

If someone asks you what your book is about, and it’s a romance, you could say, “My story is about the enduring power of love.” If you’re writing a thriller, say, “My story is about the power of ________________.” Fill in the blank. Randy offers “fear” or “ambition.” Or “ignorance,” “knowledge,” “the little guy,” “multinational corporations,” “religion,” or “technology.” Any word that’s remotely related to your story will give you a quick and easy answer to that tough question. Fantasy and horror writers can say “it’s the battle between good and evil.” Mystery writers can say, “justice prevails.” (I guess “it’s the battle between good and evil” can also work for mysteries.)

Randy says it’s okay if you never move past this vague platitude. “You aren’t required to have a unique and dazzling theme for your story.” Woo hoo! I can come up with vague platitudes and be satisfied with it. But Larry Brooks started this whole thing by saying that theme is necessary for Successful Writing. He said, “the more you value and cultivate the themes in your stories, the better those stories will be.” So I can stick with a vague platitude, and hope a decent theme comes through my writing, or I can really delve into building a great theme and come up with a great book.

Randy offers hope to those, like me, who want to take it further. Once you’ve identified your theme, he says to read through the manuscript in one sitting, marking places where the theme could be highlighted a little. The key word is little. Subtlety reigns here. Resist the urge to explain. The reader is smart and will figure it out. “What you’re looking for is places in your novel where the theme emerges naturally but it comes out fuzzy or distorted. Clarify those.” 

Also look for places where the theme is too blatant and trim it back. Theme that shows up in large bits of narrative summary probably have too much author intrusion. Cut these back. If the theme emerges in the protagonist’s dialogue or interior monologue, then it’s probably okay, especially if it advances the story. If the theme emerges in the protagonist’s actions, then that’s a keeper.

Then look for places in the manuscript where the theme is contradicted. Resolve this by either removing the contradiction or by having the protagonist notice the paradox and work through it. This actually makes the story stronger, because the protagonist reinforces his or her belief system this way.

That concludes my study on theme. I hope you got as much out of it as I did. Please comment if you had an epiphany–that’ll really make my day!

-Sonja
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