Good Vibrations: Jamie’s Handy-Dandy Guide to Theme in Fiction

I wrote a little fiction refresher course for a friend once (it’s far too long to present here, but you’ll see it in bits and pieces eventually). You can buy books about this stuff, you know. Or go to the library, or look online: I’m sure there’s a page named How to Write Fiction in Five Easy Lessons somewhere. The elements are all the same, but everybody arranges them in different ways, so if you don’t like my configuration, you can create your own. :)

But here’s something you might find of use: when an acquisitions editor is reading book proposals, he’s looking, in a broader sense, for three things: story, voice, and writing. A good story that grabs your attention from the get-go (The Hobbit, say, or The Kite Runner), a unique style or charming voice (think Kaye Gibbons’s Ellen Foster), and beautiful—or at least serviceable—prose (this is sooo subjective, but think Cormac McCarthy, John Banville, Pat Conroy, yes, Pat Conroy, who has written some very fine lines). I’ve heard it said that even with just two out of the three, a book might be sold; a good editor can improve clunky writing, or fill plot holes, and so on. But you must have at least two. Otherwise it’s just too much work to fix.

… Where were we? Oh yes. The traditional elements of fiction are plot/conflict, setting, character, style/voice, theme (including use of symbolism—and anything else you can think of—to support it), and point of view (I like to include POV in a classification I call structure). Have I left any out? It’s late, I’m tired. Of course, they’re all interconnected, these elements, overlapping each other and bearing each other up. You’ll see different names for them and different ways of combining them. I’m not an expert, just an occasional guide.

As time goes on we’ll talk more about these basic elements, but let’s start with the theme. I put this one first because it’s often the thing that is thought of last, if at all, by beginning authors. And because it’s, you know, hard. :)

In a nutshell, the theme is what you want readers to have learned or understood when they finish the book; it’s the message. It is, sometimes, “the moral of the story.” Whether your theme is a big philosophical issue (think Ayn Rand) or something simpler (J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, while not great literature, have a nice message, I think, about teamwork, what constitutes family, and that even the most unlikely of us has a part to play, perhaps even a heroic part), you need to have an underlying theme, and what happens in the storyline needs to support it.

You can make this more or less obvious in several ways. You can illustrate it through events in the story, for example, or you can use symbolism—in objects, names, actions, and so on. (I worked on a chick-lit novel in which our protagonist was a meddling matchmaker; we ended up changing all the character names to names used in Jane Austen’s Emma—Jane, Isabella, Weston, Taylor, Philip, Hawkins, Bates, Perry, James, and so on. It was great fun; clever, we thought, and sly.) You do have to be careful with this sort of thing, of course, so as not to go completely over the top (we never mentioned Emma or Jane Austen in the narrative; the names were just there for a discerning reader to find).

I’ve heard stories of working the book’s title into the dialogue, or stating the actual theme in the dialogue, but that’s just a bridge too far for me. Still, some of the best books ever written actually open with a thesis statement, so it’s okay to be bold. For example: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Pride And Prejudice). (Of course, Austen was being ironic, but that’s another post.) Or “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina); boy, there it is, plain as the nose on your face. And in case you were to miss the significance of the title, Charles Dickens gives us, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” (A Tale of Two Cities), and carries on about it, too, with his pairs and dichotomies.

Sometimes, obviously, the theme presents itself as your story unfolds, and you’ll write it in and bear it up in your next draft. But you should be on the lookout for it—because Your Editor sure will be. :)

So. A theme. It’s important, really. It’s one of the things that make your story a novel. Think about it!

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

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