The Power of Theme

My take on theme in writing is simple.

What do you have to say about the human condition? That’s your theme. I’m willing to bet that you have a few opinions about life, love, survival, death, loss, heartache, ambition, faith, change, family, sacrifice, trust, education, government, war, or growing up.

You do, right? Maybe there are generalizations about a topic that drive you crazy? Maybe you’ve had personal experiences that have shaped your views profoundly? My agent, who was a brilliant editor before she became an agent, once told me that my book needed to be about something beyond the characters and the plot. What, at the end of the day, was my book about?

If I couldn’t answer that question in one sentence or less, the book wasn’t ready. It’s through theme that a story transcends entertainment and becomes something more. Something that makes the reader think beyond the characters and their immediate problems, intruding into the reader’s own views about the human condition, reaffirming or changing the way they look at the world.

 I don’t think it’s crucial to know your theme when you first start writing a story. Oftentimes, we don’t know why we’re drawn to certain topics or stories, and we’re figuring them out as we go. But by the end of that first draft, you’ll start to notice themes weaving their way into your story on their own. At that point, I do think it’s important to understand what your book is really about, because your plan for revision will be shaped by what you want to say.

As a trial attorney, I was taught to use themes to present a case, as a way of priming the jury to hear and interpret the story from a certain perspective right off the bat, by inviting them to connect emotionally to using universal concepts that are readily understandable. When you have one hour to communicate a complex chronology of facts and legal issues, a good theme will do a good bit of the work for you, by preparing your audience to see the facts (or story) from a particular point of view.
“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” That one line communicates the prosecutor’s message more effectively than a long winded explanation about all of the events that may have driven the spurned wife to violence.

I once read (I wish I could remember where) that one of the best ways to effectively communicate theme in a novel is to have one of the characters actually say the theme at some point in the story. This jibes with what I’ve learned about theme as an attorney- stating the theme primes your audience to interpret events with your world view in mind. In lawyer speak, it’s effective advocacy. And let’s face it, at the end of the novel, we want to persuade the reader to see things from our point of view. Or at least to understand it.

I think of themes in terms of broad, pithy statements:
 “Promises are made to be broken.”
 “Promises should be kept at all costs.”
 “Beauty is only skin deep.”
 “Appearance is the only thing that really matters.”
 “Love is worth the risk of heartbreak.”
 “Love is a death sentence.”
 “You get to decide what kind of person you’ll be.”
 “You can’t change who you are.”

Chances are you agreed with some of these statements. You disagreed with others. But I’m willing to bet you considered what your personal beliefs were, and tried to reconcile your beliefs with the statement. That’s the power of theme. It challenges the reader to question their own beliefs. Through story, a writer can raise new questions and present a different way of looking at society, life and our own belief system.

When executed well, theme can help a story to change people, or at least help them empathize with a different world view.

One caveat, theme should not be confused with a moral. Themes can be dark and pessimistic. And the goal of your book is not to “teach” a certain point. Your goal is to tell a good story, and through story, share a truth about the human condition. Theme connects readers to your work in an immediate, interactive and persuasive way.

 Why wouldn’t you want to include it in your stories?
 I know you have something to say.
 Go ahead, say it.


Can you divide up the paragraph. It's kind of hard to read this way. Yep, I hate it when Blogger does this. Happens to me all the time.

Stina, Sorry fot the technical difficulties...I think we got it fixed.

Great post, Talia. Love the point about theme making the book transcend. LOVE that.

Hope you're doing well!


This post was so timely for me, thank you! And I love how you related your previous experience as a lawyer with writing--I enjoyed it much!

Stina, yes- Blogger was driving me slightly insane last night! Thank goodness Bret saved it.

Carol, Martina and Naomi, so glad you found the post helpful. I was just thinking how the main character's emotional arc is often tied very closely to theme. I think that might be another post.


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