I hate the words “literary theme.”
Theme is a term that literary types treat as if it had hard edges and was tangible and constant. Something at the heart of a piece of writing, like a peach pit or a mango stone. But those literary types mean two different things by theme.
Things like impermanence, love, family, and revenge are often considered themes. However, those are really subjects.
The other type of theme is the main idea or essential meaning of a piece of writing. It’s the opinion you are expressing through your story. And guess what? You don’t have to kludge up a theme to make your story work.
Your story already has a theme.
A writer tells a story, and revises it until she is satisfied with it. And that feeling of satisfaction, of rightness, is determined by how well it jibes with what the author believes about the world and about stories. It conveys a message, one that is central to the writer’s belief system. But only if you don’t just copy someone else’s story.
My stories tend to be about wrong-headed characters who are right in some aspect of what they believe and who are too stubborn to give up no matter how reasonable it might be to surrender, no matter how crazy it is to keep fighting, no matter how doomed they are in the end. My idea of a happy ending is a sailor standing on the prow of a sinking ship, having put a hole in the hull himself.* If I were to make up a poster conveying my theme for my first book, it would be, “Go for it!” or possibly, “Conflict is essential to a worthwhile life.” Or “People are even more crazy than you think,” which makes a pretty peculiar poster.†
It is not a surprise that my hobby is sabre fencing, which involves tricking people so you can hit them, and then yelling afterwards because it was so exciting.‡
If you are writing a novel this month, and you don’t know what your main message is, ask yourself, “Which ending will make me the most satisfied with this story?” or possibly, “What’s the poster I would make for this book?” And if it seems weird to you, more the better. That’s your unique theme for this novel. Celebrate it.
(NaNoWriMo cheerleading post for November 20 – comment on this post if you would like me to address a specific topic)
Next post: Deep work and How Not to Avoid It
* One story I published had the protagonist killing everyone else on Earth just to bring back the sunlight. Another one had a little girl allying with her father against her mother in order to spend all her time doing meaningless arithmetic. §
† I used the poster idea with my students when we were reading novels in English class.
‡ Also, in sabre, you dress up in a thick tight white suit with knee breeches and kneesocks, wear a conductive jacket that makes you look like a baked potato, and shove a helmet on your head that looks like a glorified colander. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but the image people have of fencing is somehow elegant and refined.
§ The story I’m currently working on didn’t make sense to me until I introduced folding scenery, a flat cat, and a new update to the universe’s software that meant your original universe would no longer be supported after today. Guess what my main character is doing? Right. Refusing to install the update.