Simply stated, the theme of a story is a universal truth about the human condition that your story illustrates. Your theme may be as general as love, or death, or taxes. Or it could be as specific as think before you speak or be prepared to deal with the consequences of your words. Or try not to buy a house next to a serial killer’s. (This article on the Reedsy blog does a great simple job of defining theme.)
But if simplicity is not your thing, some writers and teachers will tell you that the theme drives the entire story. The theme is what your main character needs and the story relates the journey to achieve it. (See this wonderful article by K.M. Weiland.)
I think a good definition of theme is the message the author is trying to convey through her writing. Even if the message is covert, it underlies the entire story. I dare say it underlies most nonfiction writing as well.
That being said, I’m not always able to articulate the theme of books I’ve read until I speculate about the author’s purpose. For example, I recently read Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give. I suspect Thomas wrote Starr’s story to give white people a clue of what it’s like to be a Black person in America. But what’s the theme? Maybe Black lives matter? White people often change that to all lives matter, to which Black people retort, you don’t get it. Thanks to Thomas’ book, I’m beginning to understand.
My ulterior motive for writing The Unicornologist, my YA mystical fantasy work-in-progress, is to encourage my readers to be open to the supernatural. My main character comes face-to-face with Jesus through a centuries-old legend about the unicorn.
Do you have to have a theme in hand before you begin writing your story? Yes. And no. Your story will seem ungrounded and pointless if you try not to have a theme. But sometimes your theme hides from you while you are writing the first draft. Before you start your rewrites, though, it would be beneficial to analyze and identify what your story’s message is and tailor your rewrites so the theme is always just below the surface.
Now it’s your turn. Do you have any additional insight into theme? What is the theme of the books you are writing or have written? Please share with us in the comments below.
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