Updated: Nov 26, 2018
So you desire to write a book. You have a story line in place. You have your characters in mind, and you even have an idea about how your book is going to end. The question is – what exactly do you want to communicate to your readers? Sure your story sounds great, and looks even better when written down. But what about your message? What is the underlying message behind the whole plot and action?
Passing across a message
What is a theme and what's in a theme? A theme is a subject matter that a writer makes prevalent all through a piece of work. Themes go deeper than vague topics like, say, love, or trust. Let's say your book is about love -- well, what about love? Your theme has to go a step further. In some cases, authors don’t really realize what the theme for their book should be until they’re halfway through writing their first draft. Then it hits them, and the second draft emerges. On the other hand, some writers already know what themes they want to discuss in their book, so all they need do is write their plot around the theme. There’s no easier or better way to do it -- what matters is that your book has at least one underlying message at the end of the day.
Let’s pretend we’re writing an article. Every article, specifically an academic one, has to have a thesis. An article consists of: an opening, which presents the thesis; the body, which breaks down points that defend the thesis; and the conclusion, which reiterates the thesis and gives one more persuasive sentence in its defense. My point? Treat your book like it’s an article. Treat your theme like it’s the thesis.
So your book is about love, like I mentioned earlier. Good. How do your characters react to love? What do your characters do with love? How does it affect them? What is it about love that you're trying to portray? The intricacies of love? Love as a force? Themes aren't just general topics, it’s about a message you want your readers to be aware of. How does love affect the characters? What happens as a result of their love? Does love really conquer all? Is love too complicated? These are sample questions that your theme of love should address. This is what the ‘body’ of your book should entail and discuss.
Themes can border around political, cultural, psychological, social or economic issues affecting a specific society (whether real or imaginary is up to you), at a specific time period. With culture, an example could be, say, the prevalence of racism in 21st century America. Or, if economical -- and if time period is set in the 20s -- it could bring attention to the despair of the Great Depression and how the whole world hit rock bottom during that time.
Perhaps it’s not about societal issues, but about the human psyche. Is your character going through an identity crisis? Is he/she looking for something, for someone? Are they on a quest? What are they searching for? What do they need to have or do in order to feel whole? What is holding them back? These are questions your theme needs to address. As aforementioned, themes are messages the author sends to the reader, to create awareness about a certain subject matter, and to defend its case for or against. Every literary fiction work has to have a theme.
In summary, if you aim to write a work of fiction, you need to have a theme. If you've written your first draft and are still not sure what your theme should be, read your draft again, and try to think simple. Always start with simple, and then expand from there. You can have more than one theme in a book, but try not to have too many, because what it does is confuse the reader a great deal. A lot of well-known authors have had multiple themes in their books, but try not to start off like that. If you’re a first time writer, focus on a major theme in mind, and then go from there.