Remember back in school when you had to write thesis statement for your essay? Or how in English class you had to decipher the meaning behind EVERYTHING in every story or book you read?
It was super frustrating, right?
While some instructors go overboard on this topic—forcing you to find meaning in every single choice the author made—the overarching idea is legitimate.
A theme makes your story stronger.
If there isn’t a common thread or overarching point that threads through your novel from beginning to end, it’s a lot harder to make it stick together as a cohesive whole. The reader finishes the story without really knowing what it’s about. Without a point, stories tend to wander around aimlessly with random scenes and bits of dialogue and exposition.
A theme is what ties your whole story together.
- It’s the point you’re trying to make with your story.
- It’s the thing your protagonist is learning; what their character arc takes them to.
- It informs what happens, how your character reacts, and how the story progresses.
- It’s the key idea or feeling you want your reader to hold as they finish the last page and close the back cover.
See what I mean about it being a good thing? A story’s theme can be overt or it can be simmering just under the surface so the reader picks up on it subconsciously and unless they really sit back and mull for a bit, they don’t think about it much.
(For the rest of this post I’m going to use the words theme and point interchangeably.)
Figuring out theme isn’t always easy.
Before we get too much farther into this, I have to admit: figuring out theme or point is HARD for me too.
Sometimes I just want to write a swoony love story…but then I get writing and without a solid understanding of what my characters need to learn, I can’t make their romance feel like enough. It just doesn’t feel authentic.
The key—especially in romance—is figuring out what conflict is blocking the love interests from getting together. More often than not, it’s an internal conflict or misbelief. The arc the characters take to overcome this can help you realize your theme. For example, in my current WIP, my characters are struggling with trusting themselves enough to go for what they want because they’ve both been taught that they aren’t good enough/smart enough/deserving enough. A possible theme for this story then could be: learning to trust yourself allows you to be open to love.
You might not know your theme right away.
Sure, sometimes you sit down to write a story because you have a message you want to share. You have a point you need to get across.
But there will also be times when you don’t know your story’s theme until after you’ve written a draft or two or three. Sometimes revision is when the point of the story rises up and makes itself known. Once you figure your point out, you can go back through the story and revise things to adhere to the theme more strongly, taking out what doesn’t fit and adding where needed.
I’ll use myself as an example again. I’m on draft-number-I’ve-lost-count of my current project and my theme has bounced around multiple times. I’ve just now settled on what I *think* it is (see above) and now must continue revising/redrafting to make sure that thread is woven throughout the manuscript.
Tip: Your point can be simple.
The good news is your story’s point doesn’t need to be super complex. It’s actually better if it isn’t.
Consider these themes and see if you can think of a novel (or even better, a romance novel) that explores it:
- Love conquers all
- Better to die poor than unloved
- First impressions aren’t always correct
- Pride gets in the way of seeing what we really need/want
Tip: Try pinpointing the theme of some of your favourite novels.
I know, I know, it sounds like I’m giving you an assignment for English class, but hear me out. One of the best ways we can improve our own writing is by reading. So grab a few books from your genre of choice (probably romance if you’re reading my blog) and take a look to see if you can figure out the protagonists’ character arcs and if you can then use that to distill the theme of the novel.
A note on subthemes: Your novel will likely have a main point or theme AND a few subthemes. That’s normal. For example, the main theme of one of my recent reads, THE LOVE HYPOTHESIS by Ali Hazelwood, is about how intellectual intelligence doesn’t always equate to emotional intelligence. The book also deals with subthemes of imposter syndrome, sexual harassment, found family, and the power of friendship.
Tip: Look to your character’s arc for your theme.
“Your character arc will always drive your plot, and your theme will always be found at the heart of the arc. Figure out the fundamental questions your character will be asking in his journey through the plot–figure out the crux of his change or lack thereof—and you will have found the theme your story must tell.” – K.M. WeilandDon’t Know Your Story’s Theme? Take a Look at Your Character’s Arc on Helping Writers Become Authors
What does your character really need? That’s likely a big ol’ clue to your theme. K.M. Weiland explains it so well in this article. When you put your character’s want up against what they need and force them to be willing to sacrifice their want for their need, you’ll discover their character arc. And therein, you’ll find the theme, the point of your story.
Tip: Free-write about your why for writing this story.
Take a few minutes today to free-write about why you’re writing this particular story about this particular character or circumstance. You might be surprised at how your theme emerges there.
Having a theme or point that threads from beginning to end of your novel ties the story together so that it doesn’t feel random, informs the character’s journey so they can go on a complete arc of change, and gives the reader a sense of a key idea or feeling when the close the back cover. It allows the story to pack the emotional oomph that leaves a reader feeling satisfied with the story and yet also yearning to read more of your work.