Theme. Now there’s a word that conjures up memories from high school. All those English classes, probing texts, trying to answer the question, “But what are the themes of this work? What is the author saying?”
At the time, I think I mostly muttered something about “we murder to dissect” and deconstructed stories with both great efficiency and resentment.
Ah, the arrogance of youth. Although I think my main issue was actually some teachers’ insistence on imposing their interpretation and only their interpretation on the stories. When I’m writing, I do consider theme just as much as pacing, characterization, setting, mood, etc. Stories are always about something. That doesn’t mean that everything is a symbol or metaphor for something. Even the actual, literal narration points to the theme, because the way the story unfolds tells us something about the author’s assumptions.
If the protagonist is brave and loyal and wins out in the end, that tells us something different than if they get the same result by being dishonest and cowardly.
The theme(s) of a book is/are a lot like a thesis in an essay. It’s an argument, a proposition. When I wrote essays in the days of yore, I constantly checked to make sure whatever I’d said hadn’t invalidated my thesis. Same thing with fiction: you’re always testing the narrative against the theme and seeing if it holds. If your theme is “Honesty is the most important” and then your hero saves the day by lying, you may want to take a second look at your story.
Often, I find theme helps with plot. I just finished the Victorian Dark Fantasy. However, unusually for me, I wasn’t entirely sure how it was going to end.
So I looked at my themes and asked, “What is the point of this book? What is my protagonist’s arc? How has she changed? What would illustrate those changes/what this story is really about?”
Theme is world building. The cool thing about writing is that you are creating your own universe with its own rules. Some of those rules might relate to things like magic, but some of them are more abstract. Take Hapax – hope beats fear. Taking that as something True, it does influence the plot and world itself. It’s like an experiment: in a world where this is A Thing, what happens? Is that wonderful, horrifying, or does it have an effect at all?
But setting out to Write A Message doesn’t end in themes. It ends in morals. Just as plot and character develop naturally out of each other, so too does theme. Sometimes, you have to do what I did in high school: look at the story, its plot and characters, and try to find a theme that fits it all, the same way scientists develop hypotheses to explain the things they see.
And on that note, onwards to edits! 😀