What is theme?

Baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more.

I’ve just had a mini-rant about this on Twitter and decided to bring it over to WordPress as it’s writing-related, after all.

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of (particularly young, starting-out) writers defining theme incorrectly. I’m not a fan of prescriptive advice so who am I to say other writers are getting it wrong? Well, this isn’t about writing methods or productivity hacks. This is about the very definition of a word, something that all writers should be keen to nail down. Right?

It happens a lot on YouTube. “So the theme of my book is X happens, then Y, and as a consequence, Z…” That’s not theme. That’s a synopsis, or a bland rundown of events.

I’ve also seen in the comments, “The theme of my novel is redemption.” No it isn’t. That’s an abstract noun. It’s what you want to write about.

What about oops, there’s only one bed or friends-to-lovers or office romance or the body in the library or marriage of convenience or finding out a character’s secret? Nope. Those are tropes.

Theme is the thing you’re saying about the world you created.

It can usually be summed up in three words, sometimes more.

  • Love conquers all
  • Crime doesn’t pay
  • Cheats never prosper

All of the above are themes, because they’re the one consistently true thing that ties their individual books together.

Theme is the ultimate truth of your universe.

What is true for all of your characters, in all situations? They don’t have to consciously realise it — hell, some of the best books out there keep their themes beyond the ken of the protagonists — but their lives should be ruled by the book’s ultimate truth, its theme.

You can’t go home again, love is a lie, you become what you hate, we always hurt the ones we love…all of those are themes. (I did say you could occasionally go over the three-word mark, remember. It’s a guideline, not a rule!)

Lastly, I’d advise against trying to shoehorn your theme into the first draft otherwise you might come off as preachy.

Often we don’t know what we’re saying until after we’ve said it, or we think we’re saying one thing, but it turns out we’re actually saying something else entirely. Even if you rigorously outline your novel before you write a single word of it, theme is something you discover in the writing. Outlining tells you what happens; theme is the why it does.

How many times have I finished a manuscript, believing I was saying “Love conquers all,” when in actual fact I was saying, “Jealousy makes fools of us all?” How many times did I think I was outlining something with the theme  “Friends are the family we choose,” but during edits, see the theme was actually, “We can’t suppress the past forever?”

Reading over a first draft could very well give you chills as you realise, “Ah, so that’s why writing X, Y or Z felt right. It fit with the theme I hadn’t yet articulated.” Theme is much, much easier to ‘play up’ on the rewrites or edits because once you know what it is, you can emphasise the scenes that underline the theme, and do away with the ones that didn’t fit for some reason — because now you know the reason.

In conclusion:  theme is the ultimate truth of the universe you created. It’s the one, true thing that explains why everything that happens, happens.

Oh, and regarding the earworm from the first line of this blog post? You’re welcome. 😀

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