When I was 17 and began writing Darkness Falling, I had a very basic academic idea of themes in writing. I knew books were supposed to have them and they were a message in the story, but it was hazy and thinking about it gave me anxiety. I’ve always been one of those people that doesn’t like asking for help. I didn’t go up to any of my teachers or professors and admit that I was fuzzy on that whole “theme” idea. I was smart; I could figure it out for myself.
Flash forward to today. I do understand what theme is, but I can’t say I figured it out by myself. My teacher has been every book I’ve ever read, and therefore every author. I wouldn’t recommend learning the hard way.
The Soul of a Book
Have you ever had someone ask you: “what is your book about?” Of course you have! A theme is the answer to that question, but it’s also only part of the answer. While your book may focus on an astronaut that finds a planet inhabited by space dragons, the theme is the deeper message you’re trying to get across to the reader. Trying to summarize both in a couple of sentences so that they sound interesting can be daunting.
Most of us don’t want to turn into that snooty sounding know-it-all in a tweed jacket we’ve seen on TV. “My book is about the internal struggle of the intellectual mind versus the existential crisis of the soul in a society of ever-increasing technological usage” sounds like some heavy textbook you use to prop up a table. I’m starting to glaze over and I know that’s just an example. At the same time saying “It’s a science fiction adventure with lots of explosions and gadgets and space dragons” might make people think you’ve weird.
Themes run below the surface. They are the message that you’re trying to get across to the reader without jamming it down their throat. Instead you stuff it inside a sweet coating of dragons, wizards, swords, robots, explosions, love stories, and boogie-men lurking in the dark. That makes it much easier for a reader to digest. Figuring out how to explain both simply is a key to getting people to read.
Why are you writing this book?
On Jane the Virgin recently, she was hit with this question by her professor. “Why are you writing this book? Is it to entertain bored housewives or do you want to say something?” Jane’s answer was “Both!” That’s a really good answer. You want to entertain your audience, but you also want the book to mean something to them.
Themes aren’t always our jumping off point for a new story. Often we begin with an inspiration, a character, a scene detached form everything. Sometimes themes are born naturally as you write. Other times you’re going to already have an agenda before you even start typing or scribbling. You don’t always have to know what your theme is but you should start to understand it as you go, and once you’ve figured it out it makes writing so much easier because you can build and focus on that theme.
If you can’t figure out what your theme is, then simply asking yourself “why am I writing this?” Maybe you are just writing it for entertainment, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s always good to know that’s your goal. Then again, maybe you think you are writing for entertainment but will begin to see the themes floating below the surfaces in flashes of gold like koi in a pond.
Themes are like characters. There is often more than one, especially in a novel versus a short story. They interact with each other. Sometimes, they can antagonize each other. There are primary themes and secondary themes; a whole cast of meaning that you patiently weave into the larger pattern of the story.
Learning how themes interact with each other not only makes you a better writer, but will make your book all the more meaningful to your readers. Your characters will have firmer ground to stand on, and your world will feel more realistic.
I always used to answer “Freedom” as a theme to Darkness Falling. Well, yes, that is true but not the way I once believed. There are multiple themes in the book, but the primary theme is balance. The funny thing is balance and equality was the main reason I decided to write Darkness Falling to begin with and never realized it was a theme. Once I started writing again in July I figured it out very quickly, and it made rewriting so much easier.
What are some of your favorite themes? Let me know and thank you for reading!