Don't Be Afraid of Theme

Katherine Longshore 3 Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Theme.  It’s a word that strikes fear in my heart.  It’s the reason I didn’t even consider majoring in English.  It’s so ambiguous, so personal, so…difficult.  There can be a number of themes in a novel, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to be writing about Theme.  The big one.

I have never been able to analyze literature.  Moby Dick?  It’s about a whale, right?  And Finnegan’s Wake?  I haven’t the faintest idea what that’s about.  Even in English 101 (a requirement for any major at the first university I went to) I sat, stunned, while the professor and all the students discussed the theme and symbolism of Sons and Lovers.  I kept wanting to ask, “Are you sure D.H. Lawrence really intended that?  Could it just have been a byproduct of him trying to tell a story?”

For me, and my writing, the answer is a resounding yes.  Theme is a byproduct, perhaps not of trying to tell a story, but of my own subconscious. I don’t—perhaps, even, I can’t—start writing a book by saying, “Now, my theme is…”  I find it takes me right back to English 101, staring stupidly at my desk while all the other students discover their own brilliance.

That doesn’t mean that my novels don’t have themes.  In Memo From the Story Department, Christopher Vogler says that theme is what the novel is about.  One word.  Love.  Hope.  Family.  Acceptance.  It can be big and all-encompassing.  And personal.  For you to write a fabulous novel, the theme has to be personal. (Vogler also says you have to know your theme while developing your story.  He’s probably right, and I just keep hoping my subconscious is doing the work for me.)

Long ago, at our very first Muses retreat, we talked about theme.  And we talked about how it’s possible to have a theme that arches over all of your work—the entire body of it.  At the time, I had no idea (I was still staring at my desk).  But now, having finished four novels (well, three and a zero draft) I can see that in every single one I explore the same general theme (for want of a better word, though it still makes me feel small and stupid).

Look at your own work.  What do your main characters want?  Not all the characters, necessarily.  But your narrators.  Your close third person POV.  What are they striving for?  What do they lose when they are thwarted?  What does the antagonist take away?  When all is lost after the climax of the novel, what does your narrator grieve most keenly?  And if you aren’t writing a tragedy, what does she get in the end?

This question doesn’t have to be answered out loud.  This is not a test.  You are not stupid if you can’t answer it right away.  I didn’t discover mine until a month or so ago when I was answering questions for an interview.  It was a total lightbulb moment.

Maybe you already know your theme.  Something that you were meant to explore.  Something so deeply important to you that you dare not say it out loud.  But you know it’s there, and you keep it in mind with every novel, every page, every word.  That works, too, and my hat goes off to you.

I still don’t know how D.H. Lawrence (or Herman Melville or James Joyce) approached his writing.  With theme in mind?  Or did it just appear?  And were all those readers from English 101 correct?  Would he agree with them?  Or would he just shake his head and keep his theme to himself?  He knew what he was writing—and why he was writing it.  Perhaps it doesn’t matter if everyone else gets it right.  Perhaps, in some instances, the theme a reader sees is as personal as the theme the writer intended—even if it is different.  Perhaps, at the end of the day, there are no right answers, just the truth in what you write.


If someone actually creates a written piece with a theme in mind, he/she is deserves all the accolades in the world. That would be hard to pull off. Great post, by the way!

Hi Katherine
Great post, thanks.
It's really nice to hear someone else talk about analysing literature that way. Although it may have been a mistake, I didn't take A level English Lit for exactly the same reason. I'm still in no way convinced that any of those authors were consciously creating themes.
Having said that, i have been searching through my own stuff and can pick out certain things that resonate and seem a little larger than what is one the page, but again, it's entirely coincidental so far!
Your final sentence says it all, great stuff.

Thanks for coming by, Henry and Mike! Consciously or subconsciously, first draft or in revision, I think themes do eventually begin to show up in our work, and when we recognize them, we can build on them.

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