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Writing on a Theme

This heady MFA question comes from Valeria:

Some writers say they work around one certain theme, others just find the theme later. But what are your thoughts on it?

Theme is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I move forward (luck you!). We all hear the stories of the writers who finished their opus and then saw all the threads come together into their big, almost unintended theme. Sure, it must’ve been there subconsciously, but they never intended to put a Big Idea together in just this way.

That happens all the time, and I’m not criticizing it. In fact, I think it’s valuable to let your subconscious step in and plant little anchors throughout your story that have to do with a larger theme. But I’m coming around to the idea that you could — and maybe even should — write with a theme, Big Idea, or Big Question in mind. Here’s why:

It helps you refine your idea from the concept stage forward. If you know what theme you want to write about, you can more easily pinpoint yourself in the marketplace, and you don’t have to wait until you have a completed novel to figure out a) what you’re doing, and b) if it’s marketable.

What is the big question you want your story to answer? What is the thing you’re asking or hoping to express about the universe and life itself? What are you exploring? What do you wish you could solve about your own life? What have you observed about being alive? That’s your Big Idea and/or Big Question and I think every book should have it…otherwise, what’s the point?

Now take your Big Idea and find its layers. What is an idea that contradicts your central theme for the story? Can you work that contradictory viewpoint in through a plot event or secondary character? What are the shades of your idea? The layers? What are the twists and surprises that will keep your readers engaged, that will help them dig deeper into your story?

Every big, successful book has a big question or a big idea behind it. (BEFORE I FALL: What would you change if you could do it all over again? 13 REASONS WHY: What small things in life add up to big consequences? HUNGER GAMES: What matters in a society that works so hard to dehumanize its citizens? HOLES: How can you be in charge of your own destiny? Etc.)

You don’t have to introduce your Big Idea right on the nose in the beginning of your story, but hint at the questions that you’ll be answering, and make sure they grow in importance as you write. Your Big Idea or Big Question should be at work in all parts of your novel. For example, voice: What does your characters and narrator (if different) notice about the world? How do they notice it? What does it have to do with your Big Idea? How is it expressed?

Why am I so high on theme these days? You, as the writer, have one responsibility: you have to, as Ursula Nordstrom says, “dig deep and tell the truth” about the world as you see it. That plays directly into the “why” of your story, as in, why are you as a person telling this story to the world now?

What Big Questions are you asking? What is the thing you want to say with your book? What human foibles and characterizations do you want to bring to light? What kind of plot construction will let all that come together in an engaging way?

If you want to reflect life back to your readers with your own personal slant, you have to be committed to living and observing and distilling. Be honest with yourself and be honest with your ideas so that you can be honest for your kid readers. They’re still getting to know the world…reach down and pull them up so that they can experience the vista you’re seeing.

In addition to your big idea, you need to think about the idea of the Core Emotional Experience, which we talked about all the time in my theatre training. You’ve expressed your Big Idea. You’ve answered your Big Question, using this story as a tool to explore theme. What do you want your reader to put the book down and think or feel? In theatre, what do you want the audience saying as the house lights come up and they emerge from the “fictive dream,” as novelist John Gardner calls it, and stagger back into their real lives? How do you want to change them? What seed of an idea do you want to plant in their imaginations?

Your responsibility is to say something that’s true to you, true to your vision of the world, and a story that speaks in a big way. That’s where your theme comes into play and, ideally, you will have that framework in place before you start to write.

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  1. Valeria’s avatar

    Great post Mary! I had been wondering if the theme was the same thing as the Big Idea of the book, but you pretty much covered all my doubts. :)

  2. Julie Daines’s avatar

    I couldn’t agree more. I love a story that speaks to me on many levels. I think this is what separates the good writers from the great ones. And this is a great post and how to accomplish that.

    You can pick up any newspaper and read an interesting story. But it’s the stories that make us reflect on ourselves and stir something deeper inside us that stick with us and become part of our lives.

    I make all my teenage kids read Thirteen Reasons Why when they get to high school because of its profound theme.

  3. Elizabeth Varadan’s avatar

    “If you want to reflect life back to your readers with your own personal slant, you have to be committed to living and observing and distilling.” I like that. It’s a great thing to keep in mind while unearthing a story inside.

  4. Linda McLaren’s avatar

    Beautiful answer. Just perfect! : )

  5. Alicia’s avatar

    Thank you for this post. It’ll be very helpful to pull together a novel and especially in the conception stage to brainstorm.

  6. Kathryn Purdie’s avatar

    Thank you for this blog post, Mary! I wholeheartedly agree that having a strong theme from the get-go of writing a novel is the best way to go. I’ve done so with my story and am still amazed how that theme continues to evolve with new layers of meaning. If I’d only started with a cool plot and character, I’m sure some kind of theme would have developed along the way, but I wouldn’t have gotten to the depth where I’m now at writing the end of my story without first beginning with a strong theme.

  7. Luvina’s avatar

    This is something I think people often gloss over. We get so caught up in structure that we forget about the more cerebral aspects of it all: themes, motifs, symbolism etc.

    It really is great when it comes together organically.

  8. Jean Reidy’s avatar

    Mary – Another outstanding post. And this is oh so timely as my critique group and I have been exploring theme in a MG manuscript. You’ve given such compelling reasons for defining it early in the process. But I have a question I want to throw out there.

    After reading (and loving) the book SAVE THE CAT about screenwriting, I see some pretty great reasons for “stating” your theme early in the story. I’m convinced that it shouldn’t sound preachy or didactic, but that a subtle statement of theme in dialog, thought or narration, early on (Snyder says it should be stated on p. 5 of a 120 pp. script) is essential.

    I’m wondering if that is only true of screenplays or if it’s necessary for novels as well.

    As my group is critiquing this novel, the statement of theme (in a foreshadowing sort of way) feels like it fits nicely. But I wonder at what point you run the risk of hitting readers over the head with it and robbing them of the satisfaction of their own discoveries.

    I would love to hear thoughts on this.

  9. Karen’s avatar

    Thank you for sharing your insight. Having a theme in mind is like having an outline to help guide you where you’re heading.

  10. Dawnstarpony’s avatar

    I think if you want to save time, or reduce the risk of writing an unmarketable novel, beginning with a theme may be a good idea, but some people would argue that if you have as theme in mind, it may come out as too forced or fak when you go out to write it. If you do have a theme in mind, then I’m sure that the writing community would encourage you to go with it, but if you don’t hve a theme, that shouldn’t be a reason to not write the story you want to tell.

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