I recently spoke at the Storymakers conference in Utah, and while I was there, I attended a class on theme. Theme is kind of an ethereal topic, difficult to grasp and even harder to apply. But I was blown away by Amanda Rawson Hill’s breakdown—so much so that I contacted her and asked if she’d write a post about it. Thank goodness, she agreed. Hopefully her words will provide the same clarity for you as they did for me :).
Theme is one of the fundamental building blocks of literature. Yet it is something too few writers think about. Part of the reason for this is a strict, purely educational understanding of what theme is. But if we want to fully incorporate theme into our novel, we need to change the way we think about it.
Most of us recognize the theme of a novel as something that can be summed up in a sentence. It is often referred to as the lesson or message of the story—or *shudder* the moral. For our purposes here, I want you to think of this kind of theme as the THEME STATEMENT— the truth the main character realizes during or just before the emotional climax. The best ones are clear and concise—a full sentence containing a noun and a verb.
A few examples of theme statements:
- Hamilton: You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.
- Zootopia: Change begins with me.
- The Greatest Showman: Everything you need and want is right in front of you. (Alternatively, you don’t need everyone to love you, just the few people who actually matter.)
- A Quiet Place: Who are we if we can’t protect them? (You have to protect them.)
In The Greatest Showman, there are some very strong sub-themes about acceptance and tolerance. And if the bearded lady was the main character, the theme statement would have more to do with that. But because the main character is P.T. Barnum, the theme statement has to be HIS truth.
However, while the bearded lady is interacting with the theme in her own way, it’s just a little bit different than they way Phineas is dealing with it. This is where we think about the theme as a topic. I call it—and I know this is really clever—the THEME TOPIC.
The THEME TOPIC of a story is a little more general—only one or two words. It’s the idea that is being explored. Some examples of theme topics:
- Hamilton: Legacy
- Zootopia: Bias
- The Greatest Showman: Acceptance or Family (there’s a case to be made for both. I haven’t fully decided yet.)
- A Quiet Place: Protection
Now, you might be wondering why this matters. While the THEME STATEMENT is most important for the main character and their arc, the THEME TOPIC is important for helping us create side characters and subplots.
Every meaningful character in your story should be struggling or interacting with the theme topic in some way. It will not, and should not, be in the same way the main character is interacting with the theme. This will add depth and layers to your story. It will provide a starting point for tension. And it will allow us to think about the theme from more than one angle.
Let’s look at Hamilton as an example of how the supporting cast interacts with the theme topic (legacy) in different ways.
- Alexander Hamilton is determined to build and control his legacy by not throwing away his shot.
- Aaron Burr was left with a legacy to protect and will wait for the right moment to do anything.
- George Washington feels weighed down by the burden of knowing history has its eyes on him and everything he does sets a precedent.
- Lafayette, Laurens, and Hercules Mulligan all sing about when their children will tell their story.
- Eliza first begs Alexander to let her be a part of the narrative of the story they will write about him someday. But after he betrays her, she removes herself from the narrative. Then at the end, she puts herself back in. She is struggling with whether or not she gets to, or even wants to, be associated with his legacy.
- Angelica has a story with Alexander that nobody but her will ever know. Her story will remain unknown and untold.
Now because each character has wildly different views or experiences around the idea of legacy, we are all set up for a lot of tension. The first and most obvious tension is between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. Their ideas about legacy are almost complete opposites. And because of those opposing world views, we have, really, the main conflict of the story. Yes, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are also antagonists, but Aaron Burr is the main antagonist. And while it seems to be outward actions that create this antagonistic relationship that concludes with their tragic and historic duel, all of these actions grow out of the clashing worldviews. Their ideas around legacy are at the root of all their tension.
This is how it should be in almost all storytelling. There may be outward things like wars and battles and curses or what-have-you that pit the antagonist and protagonist against each other. But in the end, all of their tension-creating actions should be born of the underlying tension between their two worldviews, or theme views.
Of course, knowing how each of your characters interacts or struggles with the theme allows many other avenues for tension in your story. Look at the problems that spring up between Eliza and Alexander, between Alexander and Angelica, between Hamilton and Washington even. They all have, at their center, the tension and hurt caused because of their struggle with the theme topic.
In your story, think of what the characters’ views on the theme topic will cause them to do in certain situations. How will it make them react? What problems might this cause? When you start considering these questions, you’ll find yourself with the beginnings of subplots that are organic to the story and fit well with the main character’s own growth and arc.
If you start thinking of your novel in this way, with a statement and a topic, you’ll create something much more meaningful and powerful.
Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in Southwestern Wyoming with a library right out her back gate. (Which accounts a lot for how she turned out.) After graduating from Brigham young University with a degree in chemistry, she lived all over the country, finally settling in Atwater, California with her husband and three children. Amanda writes heartfelt middle grade. Her debut, THE THREE RULES OF EVERYDAY MAGIC, releases September 25, 2018 from Boyds Mills Press.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.