In her recent series of posts on theme, C.S. Lakin explores the importance of theme in your writing. She says,“without theme, plot is just a string of scenes, with little purpose. And although such a collection of scenes could be exciting to read, theme takes that plot to a much higher level and ultimately gives you a higher quality story.”
Your novel will be richer and a more rewarding experience for the reader if it is based on one or more themes. But, how does one identify or work theme into his or her story?
First, she suggests: Ask Questions to Get to Your Theme
“Ask yourself, ‘Why did I write this novel? What excited me about the idea? What moved me to take this idea and form it into a concept with a kicker? Why do I love my protagonist? What excites me about the conflict in my story and why do all these things matter to me?’And my favorite: ‘Why am I willing to spend months of my life slaving over this story—what is compelling me to such madness?’”
If you can answer these questions, Lakin says, you will be able to answer what your story is really about, what the heart of your story is. And that is your theme.
“Themes are not just topics or subjects . . . You might say your book is about abortion or capital punishment. That is just the topic (idea). Ask: What are you saying about that topic through your characters? Whether you are taking a strong stance or none at all, in order to have a story with a plot, with characters who care about something, you will have theme.”
Theme Is Intrinsically Connected to Concept, Protagonist, and Conflict
“If your concept involves astronauts on a dangerous mission to Mars, for example, and you are writing action/adventure/suspense, what is your theme(s)? Well, that depends on your other pillars: the concept, the protagonist and his goal, the central conflict with high stakes.
“Let’s look at the protagonist’s objective in the movie Red Planet (also the collective goal of all the characters)—which is to get to Mars to see if the experiment to grow algae is a success. That may or may not present a viable or engaging theme. With that idea, you might have a purposeless string of scenes as they get to the planet (or not) and face danger or obstacles.
“But here’s the concept and kicker for that movie: It’s 2055. Earth can no longer feed all its inhabitants, so this is a desperate measure to save humanity (great concept and kicker, danger/conflict with high stakes,a clear goal). By setting up this story with three strong corner pillars, it makes the way for great themes. How so?
“Interestingly, there are a lot of themes going on in Red Planet, which makes it a rich and fascinating story in addition to the basic action/adventure going on as one thing after another goes wrong and the characters die one by one. The plot is exciting and well structured, which is key.
“What the screenwriter did to make the way for themes galore in this story was to create a cast of characters from different scientific disciplines, each passionate about something that clashes with other characters’ passions. When you have characters all conflicting because of their worldview, beliefs, morals, and priorities, you have the ingredients for rich themes in your story.
Theme Emerges in Conflict
“In Red Planet, the scientists must struggle to overcome the differences in their personalities, backgrounds, and ideologies for the overall good of the mission. Note that they share a common goal, but each has different passions and beliefs. When their equipment suffers life-threatening damage and the crew must depend on one another for survival on the hostile surface of Mars, their doubts, fears, and questions about God, man’s destiny, and the nature of the universe become defining elements in their fates. In this alien environment, they must come face-to-face with their humanity.
“Plot shows the story; theme is the story. Plot is the vehicle for theme.”
The above excerpts are glimpses into some of the insight Ms. Lakin brings to making your novel stronger and richer through an understanding of what the theme of your work is and how to effectively work it into the plot and characters. C.S. Larkin is a writer and freelance editor whose blog, Live, Write, Thrive provides excellent advice for new and experienced writers and includes extremely helpful checklists to make your writing the best it can be.
Our thanks to Ms. Lakin for her permission to reprint this material from her blog.