A theme can be the secret ingredient that makes your novel stand out above the rest. So how do you find what theme is right for your book?
I’m Grayson Taylor, and in this post, we’re talking about how to find your novel’s theme. Theme can be a murky concept, but I hope to shed some light on it and give you some pointers on how to find the right one for your story.
What Is Theme?
Theme is an idea or message woven throughout your story. In my opinion, it’s critical to know what this is before you start writing. A good theme is incorporated into every aspect of a story. So, even if you don’t plan to plot out your novel extensively, I think it’s important to know ahead of time what your theme is going to be.
I don’t want worrying about theme to stop you from writing your novel. It’s entirely possible you could write your book and the theme would emerge naturally. However, I think identifying a strong theme is a good starting point for any story, and it can help you make decisions later on. As you’ll soon see, theme can be the foundation for many important aspects of a story, including character, plot, and even location.
The theme is what your readers will hopefully take away from the book. Perhaps even more than the plot or even the characters, the message of your story has the potential to stick in a reader’s mind for years. And it could even change their life.
But that’s pretty intimidating. Let’s just focus on finding the right theme for your story.
How to Find Themes
There are several ways you can find a theme for your story. Perhaps one of the best is to think of questions you have about the world or humanity. You could even read some philosophical works to get yourself thinking. You can also look at your favorite books and films for inspiration to find your own theme.
One thing to keep in mind is that almost every theme has been explored at some point, so you don’t need to worry about having an original theme. Hopefully, the way you present your theme will be where originality comes in.
We all have questions about the world around us, and storytelling is a powerful way to explore those questions. You might know what kind of thematic idea you want to explore before you even have the idea for your novel. If you already know what theme you want to write about, then you can base your idea off of that theme. However, you’ll most likely come up with an idea first, and then come up with a theme that suits it. Your theme and your idea should complement each other.
The 3 Levels of Thematic Ideas
So, on the topic of what a theme is, I think there are three levels of thematic ideas. The first is a topic, the second is a question, and the third is a message.
A topic is a general idea; often, it can be consolidated down to one word, like time or control or friendship. It may be tempting to think that one of those things is a theme that you could use for your story, but it’s not. A topic is too broad to be a theme for your story. You can start from a topic or a thematic concept like one of those things, but you have to get a little more specific and form a question around that idea.
That’s where the second level comes in; the question. If your thematic topic is control, then your thematic question could be ‘Is control good?’ Now, that's a rather broad question, so you could make it a bit more specific. But it’s important to make a distinction between a topic and a question. If you have a thematic question in mind when you’re writing your novel, you’ll be able to explore it more and provide little bits of an answer. Whether you provide a complete answer to that question is up to you, and if you do, then you’re taking it to the third level: the message.
Most of the time, when you have a thematic question, you’re going to answer it, even if you don’t intend to. This produces the message of the story, the main takeaway for the reader or the lesson that the characters have learned. You could call this the moral of the story, but it’s a little more complicated than that. Going back to the idea of control, a message could be that ‘Control is bad.’ Again, that’s very general, but you get the idea. Instead of simply asking a question about your thematic topic, you’re giving an answer. So go from topic to question to message, and then you’ve found your theme.
The 4 Qualities of a Good Theme
Okay, but even if you’ve gone through those three steps, your theme might not be right for your novel. Here are four qualities of a good theme.
#1: It's Complex
If your theme is really black-and-white and obvious, it’s not going to be a very good theme. You’re writing a novel, after all, and you want it to be interesting and full of conflict. If the message that you’re trying to get across is really obvious like ‘Killing people is bad,’ then it’s not going to be very engaging for the reader or the characters. Make sure that your message isn’t black-and-white, and has conflicting sides to it.
#2: It Matters To You
If you don’t care about the thematic question or message that you’re trying to get across, why should your reader? You should be confident in the message that you’re trying to get across, because it could change someone’s life, for better or for worse.
#3: It's Universal
This means that your theme isn’t specific to a certain time period, culture, or location. Your theme shouldn’t be ‘This one specific person is bad;’ instead, it should be more like ‘Being this kind of person is bad.’ That way, the message can apply to people whenever and wherever they are. You want to make your theme resonate with as many people as possible, so make sure it’s applicable to anyone. Ideally, your readers should come away from the book equipped with a new idea or mindset,
#4: It's Specific
This might seem contradictory to the last point, but it isn’t. What I mean by being specific is something that I touched on a little bit earlier. You don’t want to try to tackle too large of a theme. Remember that you can explore different, smaller aspects of a theme in multiple different stories. The theme of your book should be specific to this book; applicable to any readers, but not too broad for the story you’re trying to tell. You can, however, explore different variations of a theme through subplots and characters. For example, you could explore different elements of control like self-control, control of others, or even literal mind control.
You should learn as much as possible about your theme. Read books about it, talk to other people about it, find people who have different opinions on it than you do. Explore your theme as deep as you can, and discover as many different viewpoints on it as you can. Also, you can look at other stories that have already dealt with this theme, or a similar one.
The theme is the thesis of your novel. Essentially, you’re crafting an argument for the message that you’re trying to convey through your story. Like any good argument, your message will be better supported if you address opposing views. Thus, you should provide as many sides of the argument as possible. You can do this through characters or institutions.
Behind their facades, stories can often be philosophical battlegrounds. Your characters should disagree on whether the message of your story is right or not. You can use each character in your book to display a slightly different variation on your theme.
Your theme will determine who your protagonist is, and what their character arc is. Usually, at the beginning of a story, your protagonist is going to hold the opposite view of the message you want to get across. That’s why they need to undergo a character transformation. But by the end of the story, they will have learned the message that you’re trying to get across, and hopefully, the reader will have too.
Alternatively, you can use a negative character arc, where the main character rejects the theme at the end. This can be a really effective way to demonstrate the danger of rejecting your message. In some cases, that can be even more powerful than a regular character arc, where your protagonist accepts your message at the end.
When you’re thinking about choosing your novel’s theme, remember these things. Your theme should suit your story, and be woven throughout it. A theme is the foundation for any strong character arc, and it’s the main takeaway your readers will have once they finish reading your book.
So remember that your theme should be complex, it should matter to you, it should be universal, but it should also be specific enough for your story. Explore your theme, build characters around it, and craft a message that your readers will never forget.
Tell me in the comments below what themes you're considering for your story. If you want to watch the video versions of these blog posts, head over to my YouTube channel here, and subscribe for more videos on writing and publishing.
– Grayson Taylor