What exactly is theme? In literature, theme is a central idea or message that the author intends to convey through a story. It is often a universal concept that is explored throughout the book, and is most often inferred through the characters’ actions and motivations, events that unfold, and setting. A theme can be as broad as love or as specific as the dangers of ChatGPT technology.

Theme is a statement, or series of related observations, about some aspect of the human condition, interpreted from the unique viewpoint of the author. Theme can also be used to connect the story to larger social or cultural issues and to explore how the story may relate to the reader's own experiences and understanding of the world.

Let me put this into commonsense terms. If you shoot a movie of your novel, the "who," "what" and "where" could all be captured by the camera and projected onto a screen for the audience to see and hear. Theme, on the other hand, happens beneath the surface. The camera wouldn't pick it up because theme is abstract, not concrete. But it's still there in the form of the lesson that the surface story (and the characters) teach us. Another way of looking at it: the theme is the conclusion that can be drawn from the concrete events; or even the moral of the tale.

If all of this is sounding vague, that's because theme is vague – or at least sometimes difficult to pin down. The difference between a story lacking a theme and one bursting with meaning is like the difference between budget wine and expensive wine. If you write a thriller, say, with well-rounded characters, a page-turning plot but no theme, the novel might be a "good read" but readers will soon forget it. So don’t downplay your theme.

A theme can be therapeutic for the writer. Meaningful writing really can cure you. Everything that has affected you profoundly, good or bad, will find its way into your writing. And what has hurt you will perhaps be of the greatest value, so never be afraid to tackle a theme that upsets you. I mean by writing about the emotions behind the experience. It forces you to bring the feelings out into the open, to analyze them, to come to terms with them – and hopefully to leave them behind you as you move on.

So, Dr. Hollis will move on. Even though my street doctorate is more related to pharmaceuticals than psychology, you get the picture.  

Theme acts as a novel's "guidance system". It tells you what belongs and what doesn't belong in a story. It tells you which is the right way to go and which way is wrong. Now that you are scared to death of theme, I can tell you that adding theme to your fiction doesn't require much work. In the early stages of your novel writing process, simply decide what the theme is going to be, then spend a while chewing it over in your mind (or on paper); about the time it takes to spit out a piece of chewing gum should do it.

  • Is your theme dark and sinister, or light and airy?
  • How do you feel about your theme in your heart? Does it scare you? Make you feel sick, sad, or hopeless? Does it give you courage?
  • If the theme is a problem that needs solving, what's the solution? BTW, it doesn’t have to be a problem or have any solution. Theme can simply be a statement about the human condition.
  • How does your actual experience with the theme differ from the accepted wisdom on the topic? How is it the same?

And so on and so forth. When you're through, forget about theme and it will work its way into the novel's bones without you even being aware of it. It becomes innate in your writing. Theme is important in fiction. But the way to achieve this "deeper layer of meaning" without writing a clunky novel is to put theme second. Trying too hard to make the characters and the events somehow fit your "message" is to put theme first.

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