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.