The value of theme

close-up-of-eyeglasses-on-book-336407It’s not always an obvious question to answer, particularly if you’re new to novel-writing: What’s the theme of the book? Yes, you have a story, of course. That’s probably been the big thing you’ve been concentrating on. But how much time have you spent thinking about theme?

I’ve described theme in the past as the answer to a follow-up question: Firstly, someone asks you what your novel is about. You answer. That’s usually the plot. But the follow-up question is “Yeah, but what is it REALLY about?” The answer to that question is theme.

I don’t want to offer any advice that stifles your creativity. Especially in the first draft phase of writing a novel. That’s the delicate moment, when you just want to let the words flow. Get it out there, on paper (or more typically these days, on screen). Don’t try and overthink anything. There’s a strong chance – if you’re any good – that you want to tell this story for a reason, and maybe it’s best that you don’t overthink it at first.

As you write, the world you’re creating will start to form. And as you put your protagonist and other characters through their paces, that world will take shape and before more real, more tangible.

Once it’s clear you can see your characters and the world you’ve built around them – possibly after you’ve written that first draft – I reckon it’s worth thinking THEN what the theme is. What were you REALLY thinking as you were writing? It can involve a lot of soul-searching. Difficult questions about yourself might need to be asked. What were you trying to say, underneath it all? And – if you dare ask – why?

I would suggest that upon making a discovery in this area, the worst thing you can do is go back into your subsequent drafts and start shoehorning more indications of the theme in your work. Audiences are smarter than you think. They’ll pick it up. You don’t need to signpost. And if they don’t pick it up, they’re not the sort of audience who care much about it anyway, so don’t worry.

So sure, go back into your second, third, forth drafts. Tighten up. Think about theme, and where it needs to be more effectively demonstrated. Be creative. But please, try to dial it back. Make it subtle.

The difference now as you re-work the book is that you know a theme is there. And knowing what the theme is can help inform your best creative decisions and as you re-draft and re-write and finalise your work, you can seriously elevate the quality of what you’re creating.

The best novels all have solid, thought-provoking themes. But I personally think for contemporary work, it’s crucial not to be too heavy-handed. No one wants the theme to be too didactic and on-the-nose. Don’t clobber your reader over the head with it.

And seriously, don’t think about this stuff too much. Especially in the early stages. Just fire up that laptop or whatever, get out there, and write something amazing. Good luck!