If you’ve ever taken an English course in high school or university, you’re taught to care deeply about what books mean. You may have been compelled to write papers of various lengths about the way certain themes and motifs and all sorts of meanings can be gleaned by analyzing books.
Whether the book you’re reading is actually, you know, any good at all as a piece of storytelling is either wholly taken for granted or treated as beside the point.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading this way, and there’s a lot of insight that can be gained from thinking about subtext. Making abstract thematic connections is a wonderfully important way of developing a more nuanced worldview.
I just don’t know how helpful it is to be overly invested in themes if you’re thinking of writing and pitching a novel. Because you’re not writing a bunch of themes. You’re telling a story.
The theme pitfalls
Sometimes when you ask an author what their novel is about, they devolve into a morass of abstract themes. Sort of like:
“It’s a coming of age novel about love and loss and a character who’s trying to navigate societal obligations and their sense of honor in order to find meaning in life and achieve true happiness.”
The problem with thinking about your novel this way is that the above description tells a prospective reader… pretty much nothing at all. When someone asks you what your novel is about, they’re not asking for a term paper or a list of pre-packaged themes that you’ll take away. They’re asking you what actually happens in your novel. They’re asking for the story.
When you stay at the level of themes, you’re not really telling the reader what makes your novel unique and why they should read it.
When you’re summarizing your novel and pitching: just give a summary of the story with specificity. Anything you want an agent or reader to take away in terms of themes should be self-evident from the pitch or plot description.
Sacrificing story for theme
But even before you get to pitching, there are perils in getting too wedded to themes and letting them get in the way of good storytelling.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t start a novel with themes in mind. There may well be something that’s deeply important to you to convey to a potential reader. And that’s okay!
But themes need to be translated into the realm of good storytelling and channeled into characters whose desires and actions make sense to the reader. The characters need to feel realistic, not like they’ve been shoehorned into a series of events in order to convey some separate meaning the author wants to impart. The story needs to feel cohesive, not like it was engineered to moralize or to be mined for subtext by some future grad student.
If you make too many sacrifices in your storytelling just because there are some very abstract ideas you wish to convey, you might end up writing something that may well mean something to you, but risks bewildering a potential reader.
Or you might get so caught up in themes you forget to tell a cohesive story entirely.
The story is what counts
Once again: there’s nothing to stop you from drawing upon themes as you write and having them in mind. But the best novels that circle around themes draw the reader in with beautiful storytelling.
And when you’re pitching or writing jacket copy: throw the themes out. Just tell your prospective reader the story.
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Art: Moritatenerzahler by Anonymous
I started my current WIP thinking more about themes than I ever have before, but now that I’m writing it I don’t think about them at all. My attitude is, “Gee, I hope some of those themes actually show up in the end.” We’ll see.
JOHN T. SHEA says
Amen, Nathan! High schools and universities have a lot to answer for. Many novels and stories these days seem like mere vehicles for propaganda. But the best stories can still entertain, amuse, uplift and enlighten the reader organically and all at once.
Neil Larkins says
Well said, John. Well said, Nathan. My comment below says what I feel about this subject.
Neil Larkins says
That’s what I hated about college literature class. Take a perfectly wonderful story and try to figure out what the author’s theme was or “what was he/she REALLY trying to say in that death scene?” When I started writing I just wanted to tell a story and I still write that way. Sure, some theme is in there, but I try not to overburden the story with it.
Now that I am writing memoir, I try to keep it that way. For example, in my latest memoir, the theme of the story is told in the title. “The Apple-Green, Metal Flake, T-Bucket Hot Rod: A Week in The Life of a Private Investigator” says all that needs to be said for theme. How that all comes about is the story. I’m not sophisticated enough to get much deeper than that.
Nathan Bransford says
To each their own, but to be clear I’m not criticizing English classes and think they are deeply important. I just don’t find that type of lens to be helpful when it comes to writing.
Neil Larkins says
Agreed. I’m not against Eng/Lit classes either. There’s a place for it. I didn’t care for it, but knew those who did. Chacun a son gout.
I agree with all that’s been said–and said well–too much abstraction can detract from a good story especially if the story and characters serve the theme in an unrealistic way.
If I can throw in my 0.02c (as opposed to a $10 essay), recently I watched the latest Disney version of Cinderella–with live characters. Near the beginning, Cinderella’s mother became very sick and before she died, she told her daughter the ‘two greatest secrets of life’: to have courage and to be kind. Like all good themes, these ideals were repeated throughout the novel with Cinderella living up to them by being understanding of her awful step-sisters and step-mother–“They do the best they can”– but not allowing them to break her spirit and never ceasing to believe in herself. When it came time to stand her ground, against all odds she did and won the admiration of Prince Charming–and was also able to forgive her step-family.
But without this attitude an awareness, her life would have turned out much differently. Cinderella demonstrated how having courage and being kind increased her self-esteem which, in turn, gave her strength to overcome the difficult times. This bit of understanding added so much more to the simple and whimsical story–which could still be enjoyed on that level–but to be able to take away ideas that are life-changing was a fantastic bonus.
I’ve been going through issues lately, and to be reminded of these simple ideas has enabled me to think, ‘Oh yeah. I forgot that. Just gotta be courageous–instead of ‘poor me’ and focus on a positive outcome. Wow–this feels so much better.’
Neil Larkins says
Thank you for this.
Alex G says
“If I can throw in my 0.02c”
You don’t happen to work for Verizon, do you?!
I have been thinking about this for a while, now. So much of what I read about writing discusses ‘themes’ as if they are the most important thing about the story.
When I write, I set out to tell a story first, and if a deeper theme comes in, well and good. If it doesn’t, then the reader has enjoyed a good story (I hope 😄). I think there are some themes in my 2 historical novels, but I didn’t set out to write them.
When I read, I want to escape the mundane world, not be preached at.
Neil Larkins says
“…not to be preached at.” I like that.