Theme is the core of the plot, an idea-thread that runs through your story from the opening pages to the end, binding the elements of characters, conversations, actions, and reactions. Theme is independent of the setting or genre.
Wikipedia, the fount of all knowledge, describes theme as:
The most common contemporary understanding of theme is an idea or point that is central to a story, which can often be summed in a single word (e.g. love, death, betrayal). Typical examples of themes of this type are conflict between the individual and society; coming of age; humans in conflict with technology; nostalgia; and the dangers of unchecked ambition. A theme may be exemplified by the actions, utterances, or thoughts of a character in a novel. An example of this would be the theme loneliness in John Steinbeck‘s Of Mice and Men, wherein many of the characters seem to be lonely. It may differ from the thesis—the text’s or author’s implied worldview.
Often we can visualize a complex theme but we can’t explain it. If we can’t can’t explain it, how do we show it? Consider the theme of “grief.” It is a common emotion that can play out against any backdrop, sci-fi or reality based, where there are humans interacting on an emotional level.
Perhaps you have a story about a woman who has just lost her husband to a preventable accident. Her grief is the main theme. When you learn the accident that killed him was preventable, you know the subtheme: anger. The protagonist’s goal in this story is to prevent such accidents from happening again–perhaps she must battle a corporation or take on a government agency. Rage is the motivator that forces her to wake up each day and take on the Goliaths, but at the root of the story it is her grief that is the driving force behind her subsequent actions.
But the main theme of grief is an extremely complex experience, as anyone who has ever suffered the loss of a loved one will tell you. It is a fundamental emotion, chaotic and weighing heavy in the heart of one who grieves. It is experienced in many identifiable stages with elements of loneliness, anger, guilt, and deep suffering. It is sometimes accompanied by thoughts of suicide.
Everything your character sees and experiences in the opening pages underscores and represents her sense of loss and inspires the accompanying emotions of anger, futility, and depression. As her story progresses and she begins live despite her loss, she will still be affected on many levels and to a certain extent, driven by those complex emotions. While she is interacting with others who are happy and who believe she has gotten past her pain, you can employ allegories and symbolism to paint the deeper picture of her mental state to show how she is deeply depressed and possibly suicidal.
Once your protagonist has beaten the enemy, what is her reaction? Without the battle to sustain her rage, does she learn to accept her loss begin to find happiness? Or does she allow herself to spiral into ever worsening depression?
Perhaps you are writing a tale where a group of people faces terrible challenges in a war. On the surface, this looks like it is all about the action, but in reality, it is not. It is about relationships, the bonds of friendship, and the way the events of this war bind a group of soldiers together and also the way events test those bonds, perhaps breaking them. The theme of this tale is brotherhood: the way fighting a common enemy binds strangers from all walks of life together, creating brothers- and sisters-in-arms.
How do you identify your theme? Sometimes it’s difficult unless you start out with one in mind. Most of my books are based around the hero’s journey, and how the events my protagonists experience shape them. The hero’s journey allows me to employ the theme of good vs. evil and the sub-themes of brotherhood, and love of family.
These concepts are important to me on a personal level, and so they find their way into my writing.
What themes are important to you? When you look for a book, what catches your interest? I am not talking genre here, I am speaking of the deeper story. When you look at it from a distance, what do all the stories you love best have in common?
Political thrillers: Set against the backdrop of a political power struggle. Political corruption, terrorism, and warfare are common themes.
Romance Novel: Two people as they develop romantic love for each other and work to build a relationship. Both the conflict and the climax of the novel are directly related to that core theme of developing a romantic relationship, although the novel can also contain subplots that do not specifically relate to the main characters’ romantic love.
Literary fiction focuses on the protagonist of the narrative, creating introspective. These are in-depth character studies featuring interesting, complex and developed characters. Action and setting are not the primary drivers of the story arc here. Instead, action and setting are carefully developed in such a way they frame the character, and provide a visual perspective. Allegory is a featured motif in many literary fiction novels.
Science Fiction: realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method. Science and technology are a dominant theme but based on current reality. Characters are still subject to sub-themes such as morality and love, but setting and science are the main themes.
Fantasy: Often set in alternate Earths, medieval times, or ancient worlds, the common themes are good vs. evil, hero’s journey, coming of age, morality, romantic love. Can also be set in urban settings with paranormal tropes.
On the surface, these types of books look widely different but all have one thing in common–they have protagonists and side-characters. These imaginary people will all have to deal with and react to the underlying theme of the book.
Morality, love, coming of age–these ideas can be found in nearly every book on my shelves or in my Kindle.
Wikipedia contributors, “Theme (narrative),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theme_(narrative)&oldid=765573400 (accessed February 22, 2017).