Theme, or, What is your book *about*?

Over the past few months, I have fielded queries about the art and craft of writing from various would-be novelists. Some have sent me e-mails, while others have chatted with me at conventions and other public appearances. All of them seemed quite capable of following along as I talked about how to structure a long narrative, or some techniques I had learned for more smoothly integrating text, action, and exposition.

Where I seem to lose them is when I start talking about the importance of a novel’s theme.

persistenceMany seem to confuse it with the story’s plot. A few likened it to a moral, but that’s not quite right, either. How does one describe the nature and purpose of theme in a novel?

In the end, the best I could do was to boil it down to this distinction: A book’s plot is what happens. Its theme is what it’s about, on an abstract level. A novel’s theme is the idea that informs all the other choices.

A few fledgling writers reacted to this with mild panic. One asked, “What if I don’t know what my story’s theme is? Am I doing something wrong?”

ST.Section.31.Disavowed.CvrNot necessarily. If the core narrative of a story is strong and well-focused, and its characters are fully realized, it’s okay to explore the story and see where its subtexts and undercurrents take you. More than once I’ve dived into a novel only to discover the theme in the middle. In a few cases I found a novel’s theme only when I was able to re-read the whole manuscript from start to finish, and see my subconscious designs take shape.

I can hear a few doubters out there. They’re mumbling, “What do you know about theme, Mister Media Tie-in Writer? Aren’t tie-in novels just superficial fluff?” I assure you, they’re not. At least, mine aren’t.

Here’s a quick run-down of the novels (and a few novellas) I’ve written over the last decade or so, and what I perceive to be their themes (not their plots).

Invincible — Overcoming doubt.

Wildfire — Love and sacrifice.

A Time to Kill — The costs of moral compromise during times of war.

A Time to Heal — The need for accountability by national leaders.

Failsafe — Grief, and the futility of war.

Small World — Seeking common ground with enemies.

Vanguard: Harbinger — Personal bonds in an impersonal setting.

Warpath — Forgiveness, for oneself as well as for others.

Road of Bones — The limitations of violence as a tool for positive change.

The Sorrows of Empire — The price of confronting evil.

Saturn’s Children — Pride and hubris.

Vanguard: Reap the Whirlwind — The struggle between national security and individual liberty.

Destiny: Gods of Night — Fighting back against despair.

Destiny: Mere Mortals — We all become our own prisons.

Destiny: Lost Souls — Redemption is earned through compassion, not through violence.

The Calling — Selflessness.

Promises Broken — Blind obedience is not a virtue.

Vanguard: Precipice — Atonement is a journey, not a result.

Zero Sum Game — One person’s hero is another’s villain.

Rise Like Lions — Strength through unity.

Vanguard: Storming Heaven — Victory always comes at a price.

Cold Equations: The Persistence of Memory — Paternal love.

Cold Equations: Silent Weapons — Fanaticism.

Cold Equations: The Body Electric — How do we define sentience?

A Ceremony of Losses — When we lose everything, we become free to do anything.

Second Nature — Balancing the needs of society and the freedoms of its individuals.

Disavowed — Moral relativism.

Why is theme important? Because (in my opinion) a story should be more than a compilation of words and deeds. There should be an idea that ties all its disparate elements together. Unified in this manner, the discrete components of the story become greater than their sum—they become a glimpse into an aspect of life, of society, or the sentient condition.

A theme is what helps your story be about something greater than itself.

Of course, as Dennis Miller once was wont to say, “That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.”



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