For the longest time, I have been pondering how to embed a theme in a novel. Isn’t it enough to have a premise, to have plenty of action and to develop each character’s arc?
But while preparing the final revision for my newly released, That Dickinson Girl, I discovered a way to determine the theme of my novel. Maybe this will help you too.
First of all, we need to understand what a theme is and what theme might be possible for our novel.
What is a Theme?
Theme is the underlying message or moral of a story. This is usually stated as an underlying truth or lesson. Many themes are based on universal conflicts that tear people apart. Here are some examples of powerful motivators that make strong themes for novels.
Acceptance versus rejection
Age versus youth
Beauty versus ugliness
Belief versus doubt
Change versus tradition
Courage and heroism versus cowardliness and fear
Desire versus self-sacrifice
Fame versus infamy
Family and/or community versus self or individuality
Forgiveness versus revenge
Friendship versus loneliness
Sacrifice versus greed
Good versus evil
Honesty versus guilt
Hope versus disillusionment
Justice versus injustice
Knowledge versus innocence
Life versus death
Love versus hate
Loyalty versus betrayal
Man/woman versus nature
Perseverance versus failure
Power versus subservience
Redemption versus destruction
Rural versus urban
Sanity versus madness
Success versus failure
Survival versus sacrifice
Trust versus distrust
Truth versus falsehoods and hypocrisy
War versus peace
Notice how I phrased the above themes as opposites? That is intentional. Stated as opposing forces, theme becomes an underlying current that ties a novel together. When done well, a grand thematic yin and yang suffuses everything in the novel. It creates the heightened drama and conflict that drives the story forward. It determines who the characters become, how they deal with adversity, and what they stand to win or lose at the end.
The theme of my debut historical fiction novel, written by my alternate ego, Joan Koster, is love versus hate. It took me a long time to realize this. Oh, I knew it was a love story when I started. But I didn’t understand that it was about far more than the love between my two heroines, Anna and Julia. It is also about love between sisters, about love forbidden by society, the smothering love of the crowd, and about the knife-edge difference between love and hate.
Love, and its opposite hate, twist and turn in my novel. As my two heroines face adversity together, they experience suffocating love and freeing love, bullying love and tender love, grasping love and selfish love. They hate, and they regret. Most of all they learn that love can be exalting, it can be bittersweet, and it can be everlasting.
But I wasn’t thinking about this when I was in the midst of writing That Dickinson Girl. So how did I find my theme?
Determining Your Novel’s Theme
During the process of developing a title for my novel and creating marketing materials, I decided to go through and find memorable sentences I could use as possible titles and quotes. As I read through the beginning chapters, I found that several of the strongest sentences related to love. This surprised me as I had thought the gist of the story was about fame, loyalty, and betrayal.
Of course, many novelists start out already knowing their theme. However, during writing, the theme often morphs into something else.
So was love truly my theme? Using the Find tool, I searched through the work for more references to love. There were many. One scene even featured a discussion of the nature of love between Anna Dickinson and Susan B. Anthony. While fame and betrayal were also present, they applied more to the character of Anna than the other characters. It was love, lack of love, and hate that tied all the story elements together.
Here are some of the sentences I found:
“We cannot choose who we love.”
“What did it matter whose hair? Whose lips? If there was love?
“What is love, little fool? A groping in the dark. A battle scar. A paper memory? Go back to wherever you came from, and”—the powerful voice cracked—“do what you were meant to do.”
“I can’t stop loving her just because I want to.” “I know.” Julia reached up and pulled her down beside her. “Love is like that.”
“The promises of love were merely an illusion designed to entrap.”
“Women love with their whole being. They know what it is to live in a woman’s body, in a woman’s world. The bonds women forge with other women are our greatest source of strength.”
Upping the Theme in Your Novel
Theme can be expressed through word choice, the use of symbols and motifs, and character actions. Armed with this knowledge I set about enhancing the theme of love versus hate.
Clarify: I clarified moments that showed love by adding loving actions and words to numerous scenes, especially on Anna’s part as she seemed too cold and arrogant to some of my beta readers. I made more use of the word heart, which I usually avoid.
Symbolize: I added in symbols and motifs representing love, such as the scallop shell necklace Anna gives Julia, and the penny candy Julia brings to her after their breakup. The penny given to Julia by her father had been in the story from the first writing. But I developed the reveal of its meaning and set it in a context of the love between the sisters, the love of Julia’s sister for Thomas, and the sacrifice her father made for the love of others.
Infuse: I checked that every scene was infused with love or the lack of love, and in the major emotional scenes, hatred.
All of this was done during the final revision stage when I could clearly see the places I could add or refine.