“Theme” is an oft-misunderstood term. It’s one of those techniques that can take a writer’s work to a new level, but it is also a concept that can lead to hours of confused discussion. In this week’s Killer Nashville’s 52 Weeks of 52 Guests Bloggers series, former police officer, crime writer, and writing teacher Frank Zafiro gives one of the simplest and easily understood definitions of theme that I have ever read. He also takes the mystery out of what theme is…and what it isn’t. And, he gives techniques for working theme into a story either before, during, or after one has written the first draft. Enjoy this article, use Frank’s techniques, and see your own writing take a universal leap.
(And Happy Writing – using Frank’s excellent advice).
What is theme?
My wife teaches middle school English and History. Anyone who has worked with seventh graders knows how it is both rewarding and maddening at the same time. Usually maddening, actually. Theme has been the big bugaboo for these kids this year, and my wife’s struggle has been to successfully define it in a way that twelve year olds understand.
In novel writing workshops, I’ve experienced the same issue, only with adults. Part of the problem is that there are a lot of different opinions and definitions out there, and some of them can be confusing or even contradictory. For example, some people will tell you that the theme is the moral of the story. Are they wrong? No, not really. But honestly, I don’t think that’s entirely correct, either. Rather, it’s the moral of the story that addresses the theme.
See, confusing discussion already. And I’m sure some people are nodding their heads while reading that last passage, in total agreement, while others are violently shaking their heads and screaming words about my mental capacity that rhyme with “soar on” or “mummy.”
But here’s the thing about theme.
Forget about it. At least for a while.
Yes, I know that sounds sacrilegious. And honestly, if you’re the kind of person who carefully plots out your novel and follows that construct religiously, this approach might not work for you. But if you outline loosely, or not at all, then forgetting is the perfect solution.
There are really only three approaches to theme, logically. They are:
- Begin with the theme in mind.
- Discover the theme as you write the novel.
- Forget about theme altogether.
Option one is for those careful, meticulous planners. And if that’s you, my hat’s off to you because I think it’s actually difficult to pull off. It seems a little forced to me, but in all likelihood, that’s my own psychology at work there and not anything you should rely on too much. If option one works for you, then it works. Forge on.
Option two is the most exciting one for me, and the technique I almost always employ. I think of a good story (usually beginning with a good “what if”) and focus on the story and the characters. Somewhere around the middle of the book, if it remains a good story and the characters have come alive for me, themes emerge. As I recognize those themes, I might purposefully write the latter half of the book with those themes clearly in mind. For instance, if redemption is the theme I’ve discovered, as was the case in Waist Deep, the main character’s actions and his attitude toward those actions might reflect this theme. Certainly, when I crafted the final scene for this novel, the theme of redemption was on the forefront of my mind.
The thing about option two is that when you write that first revision you’ll end up working on sprinkling elements of whatever themes you eventually discover into the first half of the book. You may also be pleasantly surprised when you unearth references to the theme already in place, there before you even recognized the theme yourself. That’s one sure way to know your theme is definitely the right one.
Option three is not a bad way to go, at least for a first draft. I’ve had writers, particularly in workshops, tell me that they don’t have a theme in mind and their book doesn’t have a theme. I always point to the three options and say that they are obviously going with option three, then. But I also say that if you write a compelling story with engaging, real characters going through some kind of meaningful events…well, then, I defy you not to have a theme or three come out of that. Rather, I think the challenge will be, upon re-read and revision, to find the theme and strengthen it.
How to do that, by the way? I think a light touch is best. Let it come out in the things that characters think, say, and do. Show it through the changes that characters undergo. Or simply by what happens. Events are a great tool to underscore theme.
This always leads us back to the question that I opened with. What is theme?
Let’s stick with a simple answer here. One that even seventh graders can understand and use.
Theme is what your story is about.
Now, I don’t mean plot. That’s what happens in the story. Theme is what it all means.
Themes tend to be about serious issues, even if the story itself isn’t a serious one. A theme is often something you can express in few words, or even one. Things like redemption or justice or unconditional love. This is why themes have a universal appeal, across social, national, and gender lines. Everyone has an idea about love, for example. Or revenge. Everyone can relate.
Is it really that simple? Can’t a book be about more than that?
Of course it can. Take any college lit course and you’ll encounter complexity of theme beyond your wildest dreams. But as a writer, particularly a genre writer, and particularly in a first draft, does it need to be that complex?
I’m saying no. It doesn’t.
You can forget about theme, for a while at least, and just write. Make that story sing and those characters dance, and at some point in the process, theme is going to tap you on the shoulder and announce itself. Then you can consciously work it in, using all the craft you can muster.
I think that is the most organic, purest approach, because when you go about it this way, you realize you’ve actually been writing about a theme the whole time. And if you’re doing that, then it must be something important. Something worth writing about.
After serving in the U.S. Army, Frank Zafiro became a police officer in 1993 and retired in 2013 as a captain. Frank has written numerous crime novels, including the River City procedural series (begins with Under a Raging Moon), the Ania trilogy with Jim Wilsky (begins with Blood on Blood) and Stefan Kopriva mysteries (Waist Deep, Lovely, Dark, and Deep). Most recently, he has released the hard-boiled novel, At Their Own Game. In addition to writing, Frank is an avid hockey fan and a tortured guitarist. To learn more about Frank, visit his site at http://frankzafiro.com.
(To be a part of the Killer Nashville Guest Blog, send a query to email@example.com. We’d love to hear from you.)