If characters form the heart of a novel, the plot its musculoskeletal system, then the theme is a book’s soul. These might be personal or social issues, like emotional heartbreak or betrayal, or racial hatred or injustice, which sound all the way through the novel.
What is a theme?
These themes are not likely to be prominent. Lectures are to be avoided: these are no good. But if a book reverberates in the memory long after it’s been put down, rather like the way a trumpet note sustains itself after the instrument has left the lips, then that’s because of the book’s theme.
It’s that easy. Have you read To Kill a Mockingbird?
The appalling shock of racial prejudice in the old American South, the burning sense of justice, the desire to put things right. That’s why the book sold. That’s why readers still remember it today, even if it was a decade or three since they read it.
Perhaps you’ve read Pride & Prejudice. Its plot and lead characters, Lizzy and Darcy, are vivid, memorable, but what about the title? Does that just possibly suggest to you that Jane Austen had a certain theme in mind when she wrote it? (Its first working title, also, was First Impressions.)
You can write a bestseller without having a theme, but you can’t write a good book without one. You certainly can’t write a book that lasts.
How to find the theme of your book
You can’t just plug a theme into a book. Other things can be planned, crafted and worked at. But if you approach your theme front ways on, it’ll sound crass and didactic, so what do you do?
Well, the most important thing is to write well. If your stories, characters and prose are superbly knitted together, you’ll start to see themes forming like a mist rising from a field at dusk. It just happens.
(That may sound rather fluid, we know, though it’s true for all that.)
Secondly, it’s fine to have some ideas in mind as you write. They should stay towards the back of your mind, though. Stories must be told through character and action, and it’s these things which should occupy your conscious attention. But if those things are at the back of your mind, then they’ll wriggle their way into your work.
Trust us on this, too, that you’ll often enough be surprised by themes. Things will pop up in your work that you never intended to put there. Welcome all such strangers. Great authors always do.
Last, as you revise your text, you can shape, nudge, tweak things, so that those themes become a little more prominent. Subtlety is the hallmark. And they don’t have to know that they’re reading a book with soul, intelligence, etc. You needn’t lecture or tell anyone anything.
If the soul is there, the reader will find it, whether they know it or not.