Substitute the word “book” for “lives” in the above quote, and you uncover a truth for writers. We must have a theme, a goal, a purpose in every book. Otherwise a book wanders like an orphaned waif through its settings. It might entertain for a short time, but it won’t linger in the reader’s memory or impart anything of lasting value.
A good theme resonates with readers while it drives your plot toward a meaningful resolution.
Develop a Story Line with a Theme
Figuring out a theme for your book, like everything to do with plotting your novel, can seem intimidating. What is a book theme anyway? The answer is reassuringly straightforward.
In literature, a theme is an opinion or observation about a particular topic proven throughout the story.
That doesn’t sound so abstract, right? Put a simpler way, a theme is what you want to say in your book.
So, how do you draw a theme from the glimmer of a story idea? The process isn’t so difficult. First identify your story problem, and then draw out the greater question behind it. That question is your central theme.
Let’s break this down.
Step 1: Identify Your Story Problem
A story problem consists of the following elements:
- Desire: What does your main character want? This desire drives the plot toward a specific goal.
- Problem: A shift or change in your protagonist’s life causes interference in obtaining the desired goal. This shift drives your protagonist toward his or her greatest fear.
- Cost or risk: What will the solution cost? What are the risks?
- Solution: How will your story resolve? Will your main character realize the goal or not?
Story Problem: A grieving widow longs to find happiness again (desire). When a suitor presses her with his attentions (problem), she must let go of the past (cost or risk) in order to realize her goal (solution).
Theme: Is it possible to find happiness by letting go of the past?
Story Problem: A teenage boy whose father was murdered wants to make sense out of his father’s death (desire). When he discovers the identity of his father’s killer (problem), he must set aside his desire to seek revenge (cost or risk) in order to forgive (solution).
Theme: Does revenge make sense of murder?
Story Problem: A young girl who wants to fit in (desire) encounters a bully in a new school (problem). When she faces her fear and confronts the bully (cost or risk), she discovers the bully’s cowardace and gains the respect of her classmates (solution).
Theme: Will facing our fears diminish them?
Identify the message you want your story to convey. This should be unique to you and compatible with your values and worldview.
Step 2: State the Greater Question You Will Answer
Reading a book about Mary’s search for a husband, for example might entertain but wouldn’t leave the reader with much takeaway. Even the author of a light book can deepen the topic and better engage readers. Let’s connect Mary’s search for a husband with an issue its readers may face. Mary’s biological clock is ticking away, so she thinks she needs to settle down post-haste. Can she find a husband in time? Developing the story line in this way allows for a deeper level of involvement from the reader.
Step 3: Answer the Greater Question You Posed
Resolve the question for your character and you’ll have found your theme. In the example we just explored, let’s say that after a series of dating misadventures, Mary decides to wait for the right man to come along. This resolution does more than end the story, it conveys a meaningful observation. Here’s Mary’s story problem and theme:
Story Problem: Mary wants to find a husband, and the sooner the better (desire) since she’s not getting any younger (problem). Dating isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (cost or risk), so she decides to wait for the right man to come along (solution).
Theme: You can’t rush love.
Final Thought From Janalyn
There’s a nice bonus to putting the work in to develop your story problem and theme. You can use your story problem as the foundation for a pitch sentence for the book.
Over to You
Now you try it. What’s the story problem and theme of your current manuscript?