Sunday, February 20, 2011

To Theme or Not to Theme

First off, not all novels need a theme.

As a matter of fact if a theme doesn't naturally bubble up from your subconscious, you probably don't want to try and wedge one in there just because it sounded cool to have a theme.

We have all read those books where the author thought the color chartreuse was awesome and found some way (usually not a very pleasant way) to interject it freaking everywhere.

If you are going to have a theme it really should be subtle.

A theme is the perfume of writing.

Its essence should be pleasing and help create an overall ambiance, but not be overpowering.

A light hand is usually called for.

You also can't really say that you have theme and introduce the notion mid-way through your book.

That is like saying you have a rooster themed home (which how awesome would that be), but when you walk in the house, not a rooster in sight. As a matter of fact, no roosters until the second floor. What a let down! You could not charge for that admission.

The same goes for your theme. Subtle but consistent.

For the most part you want that theme introduced (or at least hinted at) from the get go.

Again, if you aren't organically feeling the need to paint your first few chapters with your theme's brush... um... it probably isn't a theme. You can certainly have reoccurring elements to a story but unless they are woven deeply into the fabric of your story, they are not a theme.

Why did I devote an entire blog to this subject?

Um, because I see a lot of new authors tout their amazing 'theme' and present it as a high point in their artistry, yet the book does not live up to the hype.

Again, so much of the reader's experience is about fulfilling their expectations.

Do NOT set yourself up for that kind of fall!

Your assignment...
Decide if you really have a theme or not.
If not, go write some pages.
If you do, make sure that it spans the entire novel and is pleasing without becoming overbearing!


  1. Interesting subject, I really enjoyed it!

    I'm a fan of subtlety in fiction as a rule. It's never fun to read a theme or a technique that you know the writer is so proud of that they bash you over the head with it constantly, thus completely destroying its usefulness to convey any kind of message beyond annoyance.

    As writers i don't think we should treat our readers with contempt. More often then not they are smart and alert enough to pick up on our subtleties and praise us for it.

    There is however a fine line between a subtle technique and cloying repetition. This is where I've found a second or third set of eyes can really help us iron out the kinks and inconsistencies in our work!

  2. I always thought a theme sounded like a *great* idea. But I've never been able to pull off a theme, even when I think the theme's obvious to the plot. Thanks for pointing out the difference between reoccurring elements and theme!

  3. Okay, trying to picture a subtle rooster themed home. LOL

    Nice post! :-)