Theme is one of the most nebulous concepts in writing—yet theme can also clarify your story. It can bring disparate concepts together. Some authors even write specifically to communicate a theme or message. As I’ve seen often in my work as a book editor, though, it’s not always easy to understand how to use theme effectively. So let’s see if we can wrap our hands and minds around one of writing’s subtlest components. Read on to learn how to use theme in your stories.
What is Theme?
The question of what theme is may seem basic, but the truth is that a lot of writers don’t really understand it. Frequently people will say a story has themes of love, or war, or family. But these aren’t themes. These are subjects.
Think of it this way: Theme is not a word. It’s a sentence.
So love is not a theme. But love conquers all is. War and family are not themes, but war destroys family or family is the only defense against war could be very compelling themes.
In other words, theme is subject plus movement.
This is important because a story isn’t just about a subject either. A story has an outcome and consequences. A story develops and moves. If theme is to reflect narrative, or to be revealed through narrative, then it needs to do the same.
How Character Reveals Theme (and Vice Versa)
But how does narrative reveal theme? Wondering how to use theme to clarify narrative? Often, the clearest reflection of theme in a narrative comes in your character arc.
A well-constructed character will have a goal defined by things they consciously want and things they unconsciously need. Such a character also typically has a flaw that he or she needs to overcome to reach those wants and needs. The resulting change in the character over the course of the story is, of course, our character arc. And the lesson learned, so to speak, is often our theme.
For example, what did our protagonist need to develop into a well-realized person and overcome his rivals to achieve his impossible dream? Was it love? Well, then, his experience demonstrates the theme that love conquers all. Or maybe our protagonist has amazing super-powers from which she’s spent her whole life running before finally using them to save the nation—and only in doing so does she feel purposeful and fulfilled. Maybe that indicates that only when you stop running can you find what you’re looking for. Or that you can’t hide from your destiny.
How to Use Theme to Clarify Narrative
So theme relates to character arc. But how does it apply to the rest of the manuscript? Well, if this idea is what your protagonist’s story is about, it’s probably what the entire novel should be about. If you have subplots, they should in some way reflect this theme.
Maybe there’s a friend or an antagonist who falls short or dies because he could never stop running and hiding, or because he refused to embrace his destiny. Maybe our protagonist’s transformation from the cynicism of fear to the optimism of hope is reflected also in society, with the nation itself finding its purpose. Once you have a sense of what your story is about at its core—and really, that’s what theme is—you can apply that understanding in all sorts of ways to bring definition to the narrative.
Of course, it works the other way around too. If your character arc is ambiguous, or if you have too many disconnected subplots, then clarifying your story may relate to deciding what themes to address. Ultimately this points to another important consideration when writing thematically.
Theme is Subtext
The reason we want a character arc to reveal theme, and a narrative to reflect theme, is that theme is intended to be subtext. Most often, you don’t come right out and say that this story is about how love conquers all. You let the idea inform the way you write the story. Then you let the story reveal these ideas to readers.
In other words, like so much in writing, theme is showing vs. telling.
This is especially important to keep in mind when it comes to message stories. Some people write stories, novels, screenplays, and so forth specifically to communicate a message or lesson. They may aim to show kids that drugs are not the answer, or to convey the power of Christianity, or to advocate for free healthcare.
And if you’re rolling your eyes, it’s probably because you’ve encountered stories before that were too busy lecturing you to be compelling, much less convincing.
It’s important to remember that stories are indeed first and foremost stories. Readers are going to tune out if the “story” reads as a lecture. And that defeats the entire purpose of using fiction to convey a message: to deliver important information in a more palatable way.
It’s also important not to deify characters or institutions that support your ideas and vilify those that don’t. That’s just another form of lecturing or insisting upon your point. Readers who already agree with you will love it, but anyone in the middle—the readers you actually mean to convince—will be turned away by the overly simplified, surface-level characterization. No one wants a 300-page soapbox when they were expecting a story.
So, don’t tell. Show. Guide. When you remember that a message, like any other theme, is best communicated as subtext, the resulting narrative will present a far more convincing argument. And it will read as a better story.
It’s not essential to have a theme in mind when you begin writing. But most well-written manuscripts, by intention or not, have coherent and consistent ideas at their core. If your work-in-progress feels scattered and unfocused, then it’s probably worth your time to consider your use (or misuse) of theme.
Are there any particular themes that recur in your writing? Do you have further tips on how to use theme as a writing tool? Let me know in the comments below!
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.