The theme of your work should be the essence of what you want to say. It’s the answer you want your readers to give when they ask themselves: “What’s this work about?”
In some schools of thought, theme is regarded as just one of many literary devices (see the section later on Literary Devices), but it’s arguable that every work must embody a theme. Without a theme, your work will probably lack focus and coherence, so, particularly while you’re new to writing, choosing a theme will help you to remain on track through the writing process.
Here are some ideas you might want to consider in deciding the theme for your work and how you will articulate that theme:
- You may or may not want to openly articulate your theme. You can choose to represent your thematic references very subtly, or you can choose to thrust them into the reader’s face, or something in between. It depends on how sure you want to be that your readers will recognise and be able to articulate the theme. What’s more important is that the theme remains for you, as the writer, the organising principle around which you develop your narrative.
- Some writers choose to represent multiple themes in their work. The same rules apply. All your major decisions through writing should either support or reflect one of your themes.
- An alternative is to use sub-themes to reflect different aspects of a higher-level theme. For example, J.K. Rowling articulates the major theme of her seven-volume Harry Potter series in one word: “Death.” But many aspects of death are present throughout the narrative: cheating death, gaining power through death, Death Eaters, sacrificing life for love or duty, the Deathly Hallows, grieving for the dead, how killing disfigures the soul, and so on. Using this device, the recognition of the overall theme tends to sneak up on the reader, and reveal itself with some element of surprise or revelation.
- Some writers choose to articulate their theme(s) via the inclusion of a recurrent motif through the narrative. This is also known as thematic patterning. It could be a phrase used by the characters, an idea which is referenced in dialogue throughout the work, an object that keeps turning up, a song played in the background, a colour, or a sound. Your recurrent motif should in some way symbolise the theme and cause the reader to reflect on that theme each time the motif is presented.
- Some writers are much more direct, and spell out their theme in a foreword or prologue, a narrator’s reflection, or a character’s soliloquy. This method works best when combined with either a recurrent motif or further thematic references to consolidate the idea in the reader’s mind.
Choosing your theme is a major decision for you, but if you can’t decide yet, don’t worry too much. Sometimes your theme will emerge quite organically from the first pages you write. Sometimes as your rough plan comes together a theme will suggest itself. Sometimes you’ll know what it is before you write a word. Some writers like to write their theme or themes in very large letters and stick them in their line of sight, in the place they usually write. This means that every time they look up from what they’ve just written, they’re reminded of the organising principle they’ve chosen and can immediately measure those most recent sentences against that principle.