Literary themes flummox a lot of writers, but theme in fiction doesn’t have to be the enemy. In fact, if you haven’t yet chosen the central theme of your book, you need to stop and do some serious thinking. When you select literary themes correctly, they can actually become a strong writing tool.
What Are Literary Themes?
When I’ve written about novel theme before, I’ve defined the topic as the central idea of your book. (I’ve also written about what not to do with your writing theme…) Good themes for middle grade, for example, can be grappling with independence or identity, or wanting to grow up while also feeling the pull of staying a kid. Great picture book literary themes include friendship, embracing differences, or overcoming fears and finding one’s courage.
The problem with heavy-handed theme is that some writers are too overt. “I love trying new things!” their picture book characters shout.
Their middle grade protagonists muse, “I just want to stay a kid sometimes, and not have to deal with all of these big decisions.”
This hits the theme too squarely on the head, and readers don’t usually appreciate being handed information on a platter. They want to dig a little bit.
So your job is to decide what your core theme is. For example, I was chatting with a client the other day who didn’t think he had a theme. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I exclaimed, “Of course you do! It’s how secrets affect the people trying to live with them!” It was so obvious throughout the work.
Luckily, this client had imbued his work with a theme without even trying. If, on the other hand, you’re struggling, think about something that all of your characters (or most of them) are dealing with. In this case, it was “secrets.” In your case, it might be “forgiveness” or “identity” (though I’d argue that’s a theme in most kidlit) or “accepting what you can’t change.”
Good. Now put it on a Post It or keep it front of mind.
Making Literary Themes Work For You
The key to book themes is that they define your work without popping up all over the place. The best themes are buried. So what do you do once you’ve decided on your theme?
Make sure it affects character and plot. For character, work in some kind of conflict for your protagonist where they struggle with your theme. If possible, let other characters struggle with the theme, too, but in different ways. If you were using literary themes of “identity” and “acceptance,” have one character be able to easily accept who they are, and another character struggle with it, for example. This won’t be the main plot for each character–struggling with identity is an internal conflict, not usually an external one–but it should factor into the story in some way that demonstrates multiple shades of the topic.
Next, write a few scenes throughout that force the character to confront the theme. In my client’s theme of “secrets,” there are several scenes where the past either comes back to haunt the characters or they’re forced to confirm or deny devastating information. So let theme surface in an actionable way–this is the external conflict piece.
Now, you can also use theme to help you revise. This is my favorite part. Consider your story core. Think of it as a rope. The rope runs through the entire story, and all of the elements of story hang on the rope.
Literary Themes in Character and Plot
Go through your story character by character. Does each character connect to the rope in some way? If not, can they? Obviously, the main characters should touch the theme in bigger ways than the barista who appears in one scene. But still. Can each major character hang from the rope of your theme?
Now, plot. This is where revision miracles happen. Go through your manuscript scene by scene. Does each scene have a connection to the rope, even if it’s a very, very slight connection? For the scenes that do, perfect! For those that don’t, are you sure you need them? Are you sure they fit into your story?
The writers who are bold enough to cut material that doesn’t fit their story core or connect to the rope of their theme are the ones who pull off strong revisions. A lot of the time, writers are afraid to cut material, and end up with a lot of “darlings” that they can’t kill (more on revision techniques). Considering each scene’s thematic impact is a powerful way to make sure your manuscript is as cohesive as possible.
All of this work is subtle, with most of your thematic work happening behind the scenes. But when done well, it can be extremely effective.
Struggling with the bigger picture of your story? Hire me for editing services and we can dig into your creation together.
4 Replies to “Literary Themes in Your Writing”
This was great! Thank you Mary.
Such great advice!!
Mary…love the vision of a theme rope connecting the storyline and scenes. I write a middle-grade mystery series. I’m finding that beyond the mystery, beyond the historical components, beyond the setting of a different state in each book, I’ve been as you say, imbuing my work with a theme without even trying. I started sensing it around the third book. Looking back from my current WIP, the eighth book, I can see the themes more clearly. Now I’m going to use your suggestion to strengthen each story even more. Thank you!