Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Identifying theme

My apologies. My intent was to post this last night, but I fell asleep early. :( With no further ado...this week's writing workshop!

I've done workshops on plot, character (here, here, and here) and setting. But up until now I haven't talked much about theme.

Briefly put, theme is the main idea behind your novel. In the romances I write, it's often that love will conquer all obstacles.

Long works often have more than one theme. While readers expect the hero and heroine to get together at the end of the story (genre rules come into play there), they also expect a deeper story when reading a novel, another layer to keep them interested. Since the Dominant/submissive dynamic is one that fascinates me, the themes surrounding that relationship often show up in my works. How can a woman be a feminist and a submissive at the same time? Where is the line between abuse and BDSM? What does 'total power exchange' mean, anyway? I start with the question and then find the answers as I write. These questions become the backbone of the book's secondary theme.

Identifying your genre's theme(s) comes first. I mentioned one of the more traditional romance themes above. For a murder-mystery it would be that the criminal must always be caught and justice served. Horror novels center around a particular fear, coming-of-age novels deal with emotional growth, fantasies with what it means to be a hero.

Determine the genre of your story and identify the theme as dictated by the genre. That's step one.

Step two is looking at the particular theme for YOUR story. "Main idea" is, to me, too generic a descriptor for theme, so I tend to phrase my theme as a question that is then answered throughout the book. Identify your central question and you've found the specific theme of your story.

And step three is reading through your book to 1) make sure you've answered the question for the reader through the character's actions and/or through the events of the plot and 2) check your story arcs. Where is the theme introduced? explored? answered? Double-check scenes in the story that don't deal with your theme. Are they really needed? How would the story read if they were removed?

In a short story, you only have time to deal with one theme, so you want the writing to be spare and specific. Longer works often have several themes interweaving at the same time, so when you're doing your re-read for theme, keep that in mind. If you're a pantser like me, you might find you wrote in a whole 'nother theme without realizing it.

Getting an outside view also helps. Beta readers or a critique group will look at the story with fresh eyes and may see things you, the author, didn't. That's a good thing. Use their comments to sharpen the story's theme and bring it into focus for a more general audience.

Theme doesn't get as much press as character and plot, but it serves as the backbone of your story. Don't sell it short.

As always, if you find these useful, use the link below to tip!



Zahra Youssry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zahra Youssry said...

Some websites say: the 37th dramatic situation is the mistaken identity, but the other some say: the 37th dramatic theme is the missing person (in the 37 plays of William Shakespeare)
Which one you think is the right, Diana?
Another question: who did define (mistaken identity) as the 37th dramatic situation?

Diana Hunter said...

I first found the reference to the mistaken identity as the 37th situation on the CALLIHOO website ( I've since found it referenced in many places, so that's my source.

A very cool coincidence that there are 37 plays by Shakespeare and, so far, 37 dramatic situations. He tended to repeat situations and there are several he never used, though. A Midsummer's Night Dream and Romeo and Juliet have the same situation, for example. Their big difference comes at the turning point where Midsummer continues as a comedy and R&J turns toward tragedy.

Personally, I think missing person is actually already covered in the Polti's 36. Depending on the rest of the plot, it could fit under Abduction or The Enigma. With a stretch, it could also fit under some others.

Diana :)