Article of the Month
c. 2019 by Alicia Rasley
I'm going to identify a few possible problems that can come up with
theme, in no particular order:
Theme repetition. What if you find yourself returning to the same
basic theme book after book? Is this a problem? Well, it can be, if you
repeating the same treatment/development of the theme. But if the story
is different, the theme is going to be at least a different shade, and so
your readers will get a new experience.
You can't necessarily control this anyway. If you're fascinated with,
say, sacrifice or dispossession or the need to make moral choices or the
pain/joy of parenting, you are going to want to explore the subject until
you exhaust it. I think that certain issues obsess certain authors, and
they explore that issue throughout their career, and that actually
becomes something of a draw to readers. For example, Anne Stuart explores the allure of the dark hero in many of her books. Jenny Crusie looks at how women get stuck in their lives, and how they get unstuck. Patrick O'Brian proves that adventure makes life meaningful.
Now what you'll want to make sure of is when you examine the same ISSUE
in different books, you don't use precisely the same THEME. Think of the
issue as the general question, and the theme as the answer particular to
this book-- to this plot and this set of characters.
You would do best probably to come at it from different angles-- like
maybe you write a book about a single mom's struggles, and another about
a couple coping with the serious illness of their child, and another
about a woman searching for the child she gave up for adoption. These are
all ways to explore parental love, and they might all result in the basic
theme of "there is no love so intense as loving a child". But the theme
will probably vary somewhat with each book, because you've explored it
differently in each book.
For example, for various reasons, I've always been interested in the
issue of "what is a home?" So in one book I might have a heroine who is
the mainstay of her small-town, and the theme might be, "Home can be a
prison as much as a refuge." But in the next book, I might be dealing
with a couple who are both spiritually homeless, and the theme might be,
"Home happens wherever there is love." And in a third book, I might have
a hero coming back to the town he grew up and realize "You can't go home
again, because once you leave, you change too much." And then I might
have a book where the heroine is reluctantly accepted back by her father,
and the theme might be, "Home is where they have to let you in."
In my opinion, home or parental love or sacrifice or whatever are ISSUES
more than themes. In every book you write, the issue is likely to play
out in an individual way-- so you can go beyond the issue and develop
this book's unique theme. For example, you might have a story that proves
that interdependence, not independence, makes for a happy life. And then
you might have another that proves that independence is the true sign of
maturity. And you might have one that shows that control of others
actually limits your own independence. Just some examples!
But you can see there-- the issue is the same, but the answer is
different in every story. Just remember, every character-combination is
going to have a unique development. If you have a heroine in one book who has spent a decade taking care of an invalid husband who finally dies,
independence is going to mean something very different than to a heroine
who has been cosseted and protected by smothering parents during that
same time. And they each have a very different sense of independence than
a hero who has always been on his own, completely self-sufficient, and
prides himself on needing no one and never being needed. Each of these
major characters will very likely contribute to a unique theme, because
their situations and how they react to plot events will be different.
Writing into the mist.
What if you aren't a plotter-- if you just write without a plan?
You can still have a theme then, but you won't develop it so much as
discover it once your draft is done, and then in revision you can refine
Your task is to write the draft, let your subsconscious develop the
theme, and then read over what you have, decipher the theme, and then
look and see where you can make the plot events and character action and
journey fit the theme better.
Oh, and also make sure it's the theme you want. I mean, say you read over
your draft and have the sinking feeling that the story as you've written
it so far gives out the message that "Innocence is what heroes prize in
heroines." (I'm thinking of those old romances where the 18-year-old naif
with the wavy hair finally accidentally -- these innocent virginal
heroines, you know, can't actually -plan- anything-- wins the 40-year-old
cynical shipping tycoon with the penetrating eyes. Surely you've read a
few of those? In the end he kisses her and calls you "you little fool!"
and tells her that her innocence has won him over. There's usually some
knowing, experienced woman too, but she's the villain. :)
Anyway, you read over your draft and you realize that your sweet virginal
heroine really is sweet, and the hero really does prize her innocence,
and innocence is -good-, and all that, but you start thinking about them
after they've been married a year or so, and she finds out there is no
Santa Claus, and the Easter bunny's a myth too, and size really does
matter, and disillusion sets in.... And you think, whoa! I don't want my
story to send out that message, because I don't want the reader thinking
that as soon as her innocence is gone, so the love, or that he'll keep
her naive to keep her his little fool, etc.
So really, make sure this is the theme you want. I've seen (cough,
written) stories where the initial theme is "Failing early and often is
the route to success," which is fine when you're talking about Pink
Panther movies and other comedies, where the hero kind of bumbles his way into fame and fortune. But that isn't so great in my epic espionage
novel, huh? If I show the hero constantly failing at being heroic, or
even competent, then reward him with Porsches and universal acclaim and
the heroine's love, I'm not sending the message I want.
Maybe on reflection I realize that the theme I want is more subtle, more
like, "You can be loved even if you're not always successful." So 1) make
sure you know what theme you want. Refine or change the initial theme if
you need to-- it's not carved in marble, after all! Then 2) see which
plot events develop that theme and which don't. That might mean throwing
out events, or it might mean changing them (especially the results, or
the end of scenes).
For example: If "You can be loved even if you're not always successful"
is the theme I want, I really don't want to prove this by the hero
failing all the time, do I? (I don't want any hero failing all the time,
actually. :) In fact, what I want is a hero who initially thinks that
success is the ticket to approval, who knocks himself out being
successful, right? Because otherwise, how can I send the message that
he's wrong, if I don't show him subconsciously believing that in the
first place? He's got to fear failure because he thinks (however deep
inside) that it'll cost him love. And he can't fear failure if he usually
fails. He'll be inured to failure if he usually fails.
So I might go back and change a few early events to show him succeeding.
Maybe he succeeds because he tries so hard, or because he's lucky, or
both. But what's important, where the theme gets started, is in the
results. The response to events. He succeeds. He's showered with acclaim.
Heroine (or someone else) gives him a big kiss. But it leaves him feeling
a little hollow... why? Because somewhere inside him he's scared that all
this love will disappear when/if he's not so perfect and not so lucky. I
withhold real failure until later. Set up the equation for him:
Success=love. And then show what's wrong with that. And -then- let him
fail and fear rejection. And then, finally, he gets love anyway.
Too close for comfort themes.
Every one of us has some issue that we aren't really objective about,
like, oh, siblings (you can ALWAYS tell when an author has a lot of
resentment against a sibling :), parents, spouses' former spouses,
former spouses' current spouses, race, religion, death, trust, sex, etc.
And there are cultural issues of such volatility that they are hard to
handle with any objectivity, like race in the South or the Holocaust in
Now sometimes great writing comes when you tackle culturally delicate or
personal issues. And sometimes when the theme goes awry, it makes for
really interesting fiction. For example, Jenny Crusie talks about all
these 19th C books, especially Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, where
women have hot sex and then commit suicide. What's that saying except
that great sex is lethal to women? And I did my master's thesis on the
strange tendency in Poe stories for fiancees and wives to end up buried
alive. Poe was definitely sending out signals that wanting a man to make
love to you ends up entombing you in his crazed fear-lust. (The fact
that his mother, his foster mother, and his wife died in early adulthood
might have something to do with his fascination with, as he called it
"the death of a beautiful woman".)
Interesting fiction-- hey, we're talking classics here. But you can't
necessarily expect that when you tackle some issue of great importance to
you. What you can often expect is... lying. Not consciously... but often
what happens is your sub-conscious is at war with your conscious, and you
state chirpy themes like "Motherhood is the pinnacle of the female
experience!" (conscious) when the plot events say, "Living with three
toddlers is like living in an insane asylum without any drugs or doctors"
Or "Your sister is like a best friend who looks like you!" when the plot
events say, "No one knows where your weak points are and is as good at exploiting them as your sister."
And "Heroes are strong and protective" when the plot events say, "Heroes
are controlling and almost psychopathically jealous."
Writing about issues of great personal importance is one of those
high-risk/high-potential-benefit areas. It's like having a strong voice.
It's easier to sell with a conventional voice, or by going with themes
that are less personally volatile. But with a strong voice or a deeply
personal theme, who knows-- you might get an editor who totally falls in
love with it.
What I suggest, just as I suggest with a strong voice, is to fix what
doesn't help. That is, don't strip away the power, but find what merely
annoys the reader without adding, and that's likely to be in there too.
For example, let's say that you're writing about an issue of real
importance to you, like how childhood trauma interferes with trust in
adulthood, and you know about this because it's happened to you.
First I'd suggest coming up with a main character who is, in some
important particular, Not Like You. Like if you're a woman, try giving
the trust issues and childhood trauma to the hero. Just by being male, he'll handle it differently than you will, and it might give you a little difference.
Or make the trauma something different than you experienced. Maybe you
were emotionally abused by a mentally ill mother, and you change it
slightly to emotionally abused by an alcoholic mother. Then try to stay
true to that character's experience, rather than your own experience,
when you craft scenes.
Use your experience as research, not as gospel. Be willing to veer away
from your own experience, because so often real life experience is sort
of weird and anomalous, or it just doesn't make for a great story. Like
say you were emotionally abandoned by a mentally ill parent in childhood,
but then when you were 18, you married a wonderful guy who taught you how to trust. I mean, that's wonderful, and inspiring, but if you start
writing about it, you'll likely find that there just isn't enough
conflict. It'll seem like (even if it's not true) that the resolution
came too easy, and the theme ends up something you don't want, like "A
good husband can make you trust again." Might be true, but it makes it
sound like trusting is all a matter of finding the right guy.
So don't get wedded to your own experience. Put yourself in the character
-- who is not you, but you must become him/her for just a
little while to understand who he/she is. And go with a theme that you
believe is true in some powerful way-- but make sure that the story as a
whole proves that. The theme has to be true to you, or it'll ring false:
"Children are resilient!" might be true in general, but does it -feel-
true to you? Or is there a caveat there? Like "children are resilient,
but they can only be bent so far before they break" or "...but even the
healthiest will suffer from childhood trauma."
The reader will respond to the power if your theme is true and the events
prove it, and if you're not just wallowing in self-pity. (That's what
memoirs are for. :) If you're exploring an issue, not just telling your
own experience, then look for a real theme to come out of that, not what
you wish were true in your own life, or what bitter experience has made
you believe. The book is a universe of its own, and the theme has to fit
that more than "real life", because it's not real life that's inside the
book, but a character's journey through a fictional life.
If you are thinking that theme and plot events don't fit, or that the
"real theme" shown by the plot events is unappealing, consider that it
might be the issue that you're addressing is setting off some serious
personal conflict. That doesn't mean you can write about this, but rather
you have to be that much more honest and analytical with yourself. What
do you really mean to say? That chirpy thing, or something darker and
more complex? I suspect you're unlikely to write very convincingly in a
chirpy manner about an issue of great importance to you.
For example, the history of Southern literature is replete with examples
of great authors simply avoiding the issue of race and slavery (the way
Gone with the Wind really does), or writing about it only in
subconsciously subterranean ways (as does Cold Mountain, which sort of
posits that some white Confederate soldier was the -real- victim of
Southern brutality-- but notice that much of the punishment Inman
receives is that which was actually visited upon slaves, especially those
who tried to escape). Now before I manage to offend everyone south of
the Mason-Dixon line, let me say I believe this because I grew up in
Virginia, and my time there spanned that tumultuous period from
secregation to civil rights. I know whereof I speak, plus I studied
Southern History with the great historian John Hope Franklin and
read everything William Faulkner wrote (he being one of the few southern
white writers who addressed, however weirdly, race and slavery and what
one set of southerners did to another set).
And it is -fascinating- how adroitly Southern literature avoids
addressing the most important issue of the south. (Maybe of the nation.)
Why? Lots of subterranean reasons, lots of internal conflict. So it comes
out in these weird ways-- Faulkner's white plantation hero finding that he has black slave ancestors. Charles Frasier's Cold Mountain hero getting chained and a nice white family getting tortured and slaughtered by "the Home Guard". He's really talking about the experience of blacks in the pre-war period, but even 150 years later, that's not something that generally gets addressed openly by southern white writers. (Southern black writers tackle it more openly.) It makes for amazing reading, but it sure shows that
conflict bursting forth. The incoherence is intriguing in itself... but I
suspect that denial has to be awfully deep to allow for the author's and
culture's conflicts to manifest in great fiction.
More often, it manifests as incoherent, "off" fiction. So if you know
this issue is particularly fraught or sensitive for you, go ahead and
write about it... but see if you can find a real theme in there, not the
one you're consciously planning. Watch for scenes and events that are
in obvious conflict with the theme you say you want. Whether you change
the theme or the plot events, I think, depends on which is truer, which
is better, and you can't tell this until you have a draft written
Let's say you have a theme coming out that you don't like. What do you
do? I'd say that usually this is because of one event or scene which is
so extreme in some way that it throws everything else off, including the
theme, but also usually character logic.
For example, let's say you're writing a book where Mary is there
when her fiancÚ has to deal with his rebellious son. He's just gotten
custody of the kid when the ex-wife died. Now there's a reason why we
tend to show our heroes interacting with children, because one reason for
a courtship is to give the woman time to determine if this guy will make
a good father for her kids. And like many romance writers, maybe you're
intrigued with the idea of a single dad's struggle.
Of course you don't want, probably, to show Tom being perfectly perfect with this kid, saying and doing the right thing automatically, because that just isn't believable. But if maybe you got some father issues or spouse's former spouse issues (or a teenager of your own!), you might
come up with a scene that doesn't just show Dad/Tom losing it, but losing it in an ugly way-- and Mary getting off on it.
There are some things that really hit a reader hard in the wrong way.
Suspense author Eileen Dreyer jokes about the difference between romance and mystery readers, that romance readers won't forgive you if you kill a kid, while mystery readers won't forgive if you kill a cat. It helps to know what the ARRRGH issues are for your target readership, and think about how to handle them.
Now you should write what's RIGHT, what's true. Of course. But keep in
mind not just the single scene, but the totality of what it means in the
story. (Remember, theme is about adding in all up-- not a single story
element-- but one extreme event can cast into doubt everything else.) So
here you are maybe writing about a father unexpectedly getting custody of
Somewhere buried in each of us is probably a child that fears the loss or
absence of a parent's love. Some of us, unfortunately, have actually
experienced that-- those who have been abandoned by a parent who leaves and doesn't come back. Whether it's a fear or an actuality, we mostly
know this, and it doesn't end with age. So just as certain issues really
strike home with you as a writer, there are certain things that are going
to really hit hard to a reader. Make sure you want to hit that particular
So Tom is getting righteously mad because the son stays out too late or
is defiant or talks crudely to Mary. Teenagers can be horrible.
But when Dad loses it and says, very coldly, that the son is just like
his mother, that "The only reason I married her was because she
trapped me with a pregnancy," that he never loved her and would have
been glad when she died except it meant he got stuck with the kid....
Whoa. I can just about guarantee you that our reader is cringing and
hearing those words and thinking, "No love? He never loved the kid or the
That's bad enough, but if we have Mary witnessing this and
thinking with relief, "Oh, he never loved the ex-wife! Oh, good! He
loves me more!", then the reader can be forgiven for thinking the theme
is "bad fathers make for good lovers." Because he's being a bad father,
and she is rewarding him for it with gratitude. Ooops. That's
probably not exactly what we meant, huh?
But you know, the last thing you want to do is castrate the conflict. I
mean, we want to have real conflict and high stakes, right? But is the
scene -true-? Would a man we want the reader to respect and admire and
consider worthy of great love really do that?
So how can we keep the conflict but take off the worst edges that throw
the whole book out of whack?
I suggest starting with the horribleness and cutting it short. The reader
will figure it out without having to hate. :) For example, say Tom
_thinks_ these terrible things, but doesn't say them out loud, and the
kid slams out, or gets sent to his room, or whatever. And Tom then
tells Mary what he was about to say, confesses it to her,
understanding how very near he was to saying the unforgiveable. And
instead of her cheering because he didn't love his ex, maybe she tries to
understand why he's so angry-- "You feel guilty, don't you, because you
didn't love his mother." Lots of conflict, lots of tension, but we're
there with Tom, still identifying with him rather than shrinking
from him. And the theme might end up something like "a man who
understands himself will make a good lover".
So just consider, if your theme and plot don't mesh, or your events are
heading to some theme you don't like-- where are the events that are
"wrong"? Get analytical here. Outline the plot. Have a friend read it.
Play reader yourself for awhile. Something is wrong, and you need to
diagnose this. Often the fix is far easier than you imagined. I remember
one critique partner's book where a few nasty adjectives led to a rather
ugly theme (something like "if a woman doesn't want sex, she's just
repressing"). Truly, the fix was taking out the adjectives the man character used to describe her, just adjectives. We just went through and circled words that gave the wrong impression, and that was about all it took.
The Skeptic's Theme
By the way, you the author or you the reader don't have to --believe-- in
a theme to find it in your books. I mean, "You become what you are born
to be" is not something I agree with (I'm American, after all!), but
think of King Arthur-- even as a callow young boy, not good enough to be
a knight, he is able to lift out that sword- why? Because he's been raised
so well? Nah. Because he's so good? Nah. Because he's secretly the son of
the former king? Right-o!
That's a common theme in books where unlikely young men and women are "outed" as having been born royal or noble, but raised poor by foster parents, and they just can't help themselves-- they ascend to the station to which they were born. This usually requires a lot of good luck and raw coincidence, and seldom much protagonist growth or action-- because the most important event happened long before the story opens, when they were conceived. So it's a perfectly good theme, and very common in pre-20th Century stories, even if it's not a theme I like.
But probably you're more likely to create a story that says what you
believe... it's just sometimes you might find yourself using a more
acceptable theme that you don't actually truly believe in. You might be
trying to write a book that says "love empowers you," just as you're
going through a divorce and think that loving the guy who dumped you has made you feel inadequate and powerless. I mean, you probably think, "Who wants to read a love story that says love is bad for you?" But you're
probably unlikely to be really convincing and might even subconsciously
sabotage the story's thematic coherence if you try to force in a theme
that doesn't even convince you.
In that case, I'd suggest working with a theme that you do believe in, or
is sort of inarguable. "Divorce makes it hard to trust again," say.
Then again, you could write a hero so incredibly compelling that he would
tempt the most cynical of women to believe in love again!
The Risky Ending
The most common trouble spot in a book, by the way, where the theme goes awry if you have issues with it, is in the very end-- the climax and/or
Let me give a bad example. I'm married to an attorney and all too
acquainted with a fairly common "theme" among attorneys-- many
are cynical and believe that the justice system is unlikely to do
justice. So their life or professional theme might be, "Justice -will
not- be done," or "Everyone's corrupt when you get down to it." (Not all
attorneys think like this... just most of the ones I know! :)
Okay, so let's say one of them goes off and writes a legal thriller. And
at the center is some lawyer who takes a case no one else wants, etc. This lawyer seems to exemplify the power of true justice to overcome injustice. I
can't tell you how annoying it is to read a legal thriller with a theme
like "One incorruptible man can make a difference" and the whole story
goes to prove that, and then there's this final scene, completely un-setup, where the uncorruptible man runs off with all the money. Or the attorney
deliberately cheats. It's expressing not the theme of the book but the
author's distrust of it-- the final scene has another theme, one which
isn't proved by the book as a whole but actually contradicts the other
theme. It's like the cynicism was held at bay till the very end, but
So look to the ending if you think that the theme might have gotten away
from you because of some internal issue of your own. That's likely where
a new, competing theme will be introduced.