“What’s your story about?” As a writer, you have probably been asked that questions many times. Often, writers fall into the trap of stating something like, “science fiction,” or “it’s a mystery novel.” However, they are simply giving the genre and not the theme. What is a theme? A theme simply answers what the story is about.
A theme is the unifying idea or ideas in your story. A well-defined theme can help to give a story a focus and a center. Determining your main theme can help you to present your ideas simply. While some can be complex, it’s often a good idea to simplify the basic theme.
What is the difference between a theme and a plot? The plot is about what happens in the story. It tells the events as they occur, such as “this happens, then this happens, and this person does this.” Your theme is about the story itself. Your theme helps to explain/summarize your plot.
Finding Your Theme
First, the good news. You don’t have to come up with a definitive theme before you start your book. You just need a focus. Is your story about unicorns or lawyers? Both?
Now for the not-so-great (but not bad) news. You do have to have an idea for one, at least in the back of your head. Simply start by asking yourself, “What is my novel about?”
Just start by telling your story. As you get into writing it, the theme will begin to crystallize in your mind. Or, at least it should. If it doesn’t, then you may have wandered off the beaten path too much and needed to refocus your writing. Start jotting down these ideas on a piece of paper or in OneNote.
The best time to start thinking about your key theme is after you’ve written the first draft of your story. This allows the overarching theme to emerge naturally versus forcing a story into a theme.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when trying to find your main theme.
- What made you start writing the story in the first place? The motivation to write it can often reveal the theme.
- What is the central conflict in your story? What is in opposition to your hero or society at large?
- Can you summarize your story into one sentence or less? What keywords jump out at you? Is the story about addiction, fear, and longing?
It sounds simple enough, right? If you are still having a problem finding a central theme, here are a few more questions.
- Do certain things keep reoccurring in your story? Look for symbols and metaphors. For example, the ring in The Lord of the Rings is both a symbol and a literal object at the same time. It symbolizes that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
- Do the character’s actions (especially the protagonist and antagonist) imply any universal truths? Are there any common life truths that affect everyone in one way or another? For example, the cycle of life and death is common to all humans. We are all born equal and die equal. That last sentence could be used as a theme.
- Does the hero’s triumph over the protagonist (person, place, event) represent a broader theme of good versus evil?
- Is there a social content to your story? Does your protagonist’s sexual identity tell you that your story is about sexuality in general or is it specific to the character?
- Does your protagonist’s search for the missing student represent a universal search for humans and the meaning of life?
Those last few questions are just some of the examples of questions that you can look for when reading your text.
Examples of Themes in Popular Literature
The Great Gatsby by F. Schott Fitzgerald
Theme: corruption of the American dream
Theme: a love triangle complicated by temperament, circumstance, and the Korean War
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Theme: the numerous consequences of war and peace
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling
Theme: struggle to come to terms with our mortality
Theme: impact of affluent suburbia on motherhood and careers
Think of your favorite books and try to state the dominant theme in a single word, phrase, or sentence.
Genre vs. Theme
I’ve had authors ask what the difference is between a theme and a genre. Simply put, the theme tells the reader about your story. It is the container of for your story. The genre is the category of literature that your book belongs.
Harry Pottery, for example, starts off as children’s literature (initially) and then veers off into fantasy with Goblet of Fire.
A theme, however, tells the reader about the story itself. Just as with genres, a book may have multiple themes as well. The main theme of Harry Potter, for example, is the struggle of dealing with eventual death. However, additional themes (or subthemes) covers love, immortality, and the power of choice and its impact on our lives.
Here are a couple of examples of popular books with their genre and theme.
Genre: Children’s literature and fantasy
Theme: struggle to come to terms with our mortality
Genre: Science fiction
Theme: What is it to be human?
Return to your story after your first draft. Focus on several pages of the draft (at least 10) and write down keywords that relate to your chosen theme. The character, the setting, the opening line, anything that you feel fits the theme. If you cannot find much text that ties back to your theme, ask yourself why. Is the theme illustrated too little? Did you wander too much off track in your writing? [We’ve all read novels where the author spends ten agonizing pages describing a setting or object that had nothing to do with the story.] Or, do you have the wrong theme?
The revision stage of your manuscript is where the theme becomes critical. Revise and revise your manuscript to make your choices flow into the main theme or subthemes. Look over the entire document and make sure that all your narrative choices make sense in the overall story. Otherwise, adjust your theme, but make sure that you do it universally through your book.
With these steps, you’ll avoid answering the question, “What’s your book about?” with “I’m not sure.”