What on earth is a novel ‘theme’?
I remember struggling with this at high school as English teacher after English teacher asked the class what was the theme of our set novel. I was among the blank faces or embarrassed book shufflers.
What is a ‘theme’?
Like many of my classmates, I thought you simply read a novel, enjoyed it or not, and moved onto the next one. Why dissect it?
Is there any value in recognising a theme?
I understood that your characters had to be real – have some depth – so that the reader could believe in them. Believable characters carried me through the action – even unbelievable action – because I, the reader, understood ‘what made them tick’. I might identify with their intentions or be horrified by them. Nevertheless, characters and motivation was what sold the story to me as a reader.
For instance, the theme of Aladdin might be that: Anything’s possible. But does knowing that make our enjoyment of the story any greater? We just identify with Aladdin and feel the power that three wishes could grant us – a bit like winning the lottery.
And the theme of Animal Farm has popularly become: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Yet George Orwell was writing a very political novel and commentary on class in western society. Most of my classmates read the book, shuddered, and moved onto a less depressing story.
Does knowing about the theme add or detract from the novel?
One easy to recognise theme is the popular ‘good triumphs over evil’.
Many stories interweave this theme through their pages and storyline. Despite having to resort to violence, the main character(s) restore order to the universe, their country, or someone else’s country. They suppress the natives, bring civilisation to savages, or make an errant woman/man realise the error of their ways.
Of course, ‘good’ in that sense definitely depends on your point-of-view, current status (or religion). Most ‘themes’ are less obvious.
Do authors recognise their story’s theme?
When I started writing More Than I could Bear I had no idea of the novel’s ‘theme’ – it simply crept up on me. In fact, even when half way through writing the novel I was struggling to define its theme. I went through things like:
- Friendships can be abusive – ugh!
- We all need to be true to ourselves
- When one child is disabled the whole family is disabled
Nothing quite fitted all the actions and motivations of the characters.
The theme emerged like a waking monster
Finally I realised that the underlying meaning of the story is: “Life is a series of compromises – we just have to work out which compromises we can live with”.
According to novelist, screenwriter, and game designer Chuck Wendig: “Every story’s trying to say something. It’s trying to beam an idea, a message, into the minds of the readers. In this way, every story is an argument. It’s the writer making a case.”
If I look at my novel through that lens I can see that in each scene, characters wrestled with their own compromises, some by trying to control others, some by allowing life to happen to them, some by searching for a new direction. Each of the main characters contributed to the climax of the novel by trying to find a compromise they could live with. It fitted with all the characters, even minor ones. It fitted with their reaction to circumstances and events. Even when the characters tried to change things around to fit their objectives, in the end they had to compromise.
In the end there was clarity
Chuck Wendig’s analysis gave me some clarity.
The theme of a story or novel has nothing to do with the reader and everything to do with the writer. It’s the author putting the stamp of their beliefs on their piece of writing.
It really could never have been any other way.
Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author
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