I confess that for a long time, I didn’t quite understand the significance of theme in novels. And that was because I didn’t really know what a theme was. I couldn’t point to it or pin it down. If it was so important, how come it was so elusive? But now I understand that its very mystery is the key to its importance. The central theme of a novel is not presented directly at all. It’s subliminal and must be extracted from the characters, the plot, the setting … in other words, as a reader you need to figure it out for yourself. And what’s more amazing, most of the time, you don’t even know that you’re doing it. That’s where the magic lies! You know intuitively what the story means. You think about it and ask yourself questions. You want to discuss it. The story may haunt your heart and mind long after you close the book.
Bestselling novelist Larry Brooks puts it like this. ‘ … without strong thematic intentions … a novel is just a sitcom, literary junk food, a quick hit of cheap-thrills genre that you read to pass the time on a flight.’ That’s not what I want for my books. I don’t expect them to win the Miles Franklin, but I do expect them to have emotional resonance. So I’ve learned to think long and carefully about theme.
Maybe your book is about the dangers of ignorance, or change versus tradition, or the circle of life. How do you help readers connect with this? Repeating patterns and symbols are good. Allusions can help too. Have characters face the consequences of their behaviour. Have them think aloud. Let them learn a lesson. Serve up views on both sides, so your reader is faced with a dilemma, and must choose. Sometimes, in those marvelous stories that almost write themselves, the theme evolves organically along with the mounting word count. You know perfectly well what the story means, and you trust the reader will know too. This of course is the dream, and it happens more often than you might think. But a powerful theme is too important to leave to chance. It can make the difference between publication and the bottom drawer.
In celebration of Aussie Author Month, I’m giving away a copy each of Brumby’s Run and Wasp Season. Just leave a comment saying – if your WIP or favourite novel had a theme song, what would it be? Winners announced April 30th. Aust & NZ residents only.
A timely post Jennifer. Someone else was talking about themes in writing just recently, and like you I was a bit baffled. I started thinking about Vokhtah, feeling vaguely guilty that I hadn’t thought about a theme, and suddenly it hit me that I had woven a theme into the story [completely unconsciously I should add].
I’ve always been a humanist rather than a feminist, and that theme of ‘gender doesn’t matter’ infused the story without my being aware of it.
In hindsight, I’m glad the story had that added depth, but I can’t help wondering if it would have worked if I had actually intended to create such a theme from the beginning. I suspect I still have a lot to learn in the craft of writing.
I’d say one of the themes running through your writing is the connection to ‘country’. I know it resonates with me, and was one of the things I loved most about Brumby’s Run.
Yes, good writers unconsciously create unifying themes in their work. I’m just glad I’ve got more of a handle on the concept now than when I started. 🙂
A rose by any name. I think you’ve got themes covered!
Great blog post Jenny! So very true.
So good from hear from you Catherine … thank you
I think a good theme song for a movie of the book Playing Beatie Bow would be Waterfall by Enya, obviously not an Australian song, but it’s quite haunting and I think it work really well!
I see how that could work Kim!