Thursday, 3 September 2015

What is theme? - Heather Dyer

The theme of a book might be considered the underlying ‘message’, or the moral of the story. Or you might call it the values or issues that are explored in the story. Or, as the wonderful Mary Carroll Moore describes theme, it’s the ‘silvery thread that holds a story together, that transmits meaning by the end’. It’s the ‘underground river, like the subconscious movement beneath your story's subject.’

The theme of a book is what a reader is left with, after the story ends. And it’s often only when the story ends that the theme is revealed to the writer, too. Although the theme might be the most important element of a story, it’s usually not decided upon beforehand. It usually emerges, like steam, from between the lines, and isn't fully realized until the final drafts. 

So how do you realize your book’s theme? It’s sometimes difficult. Here are a few things to try:
  1. Describe the book you’re writing (or your favourite book) without using any proper nouns. This way, you might discover the feelings, values and events that matter most to you.
  2. Freewrite on what the book you’re writing means to you.
  3. Free write on what your readers might take away from the book you’re writing. The theme may fall somewhere between 2 and 3. 
  4. Freewrite on what you don’t want to write about, or are frightened to write about. 
  5. Meditate on questions like: What do I want? or What do I care about? and see what arises. 
  6. Imagine that you’re in prison and the guards are confiscating your manuscript. You’re only left with one page; which page would it be? They’re snatching that page out of your hands, and you’re left with only one paragraph. Which paragraph would it be? They take the paragraph, too, and you’re left with only one sentence. Which sentence would it be? Within this sentence may reside your theme.
Or try some of Mary Carroll Moore’s suggestions:
  1. Identify the images that occur repeatedly in your writing. What might they symbolize to you?
  2. What’s the subtext of the conversations that your characters have? What’s left unsaid? What’s between the lines? These issues might also point to your theme.
  3. Where do you use the senses to describe things – particularly sound, smell, touch? Does this usage point to certain theme, or evoke a surprising meaning? 

When you identify your theme, you’ll need to highlight it by using imagery, using the senses, enhancing the subtext in dialogue, or having characters talk openly about these issues. 

Allowing your novel’s theme to reveal itself to you is one of the most interesting and enlightening things about writing. It can show you a lot about what matters most to you. This may not be what you thought it was. Often, a writer will explore – unintentionally – the same themes over and over in each new book. It’s often only when a writer changes in themselves, that their theme changes, too. 

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Nick Green said...

I love point 6. That's very true. Somewhere in most books is that line from which the whole rest of the book is spun (even if that line was written late on). Perhaps the theme is more like the book's DNA, rather than its meaning or moral per se.

The only time I was aware of this consciously was when I was writing my third Cat Kin book. Towards the end, one of the characters says, 'What's the point of having nine lives if you don't even have one?' And I realised this was the theme. The tension between trying to be heroic and do the right thing, and making a life for yourself that you actually want to live. It didn't offer an answer, but I think a theme doesn't have to - it just as to pose a question.

Nick Green said...

*Has to. Not as to. Went all Cockney there.

Heather Dyer said...

Thanks Nick - yes, lovely when your character speaks your theme aloud for you, and you just sit back and think, 'Well! Out of the mouths of babes...!'

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thanks... a great post with a beautiful image that definitely captures the meandering ways of theme. Like Nick, also liked the idea of Point 6. Am off to try it. In a screenplay the theme is usually hinted at very early just after the set up and often stated out loud in dialogue by one of the other characters but in a novel maybe themes are more layered.