Four Ingredients of Story: Theme

Now, we come to the last in our Four Ingredients series – theme. In the shaping of a story, theme is more of a background ingredient. You don’t need a strong theme to create a successful story. Yet it is often the theme that inspires the writer to write the story in the first place – and the reader to pick it up.

All great stories cover universal themes, themes that speak to all of us. There isn’t a single story in humankind that doesn’t deal with love or death, or both. Within those two broad categories, popular themes include marriage, the effects of ageing and the quest for happiness. When a story is really powerful, it holds a mirror up to the human condition and we see ourselves reflected in it.

As a writer, it’s hard to feel that it hasn’t all been said before. Well, it has. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find new ways to say it. You can bring your own unique voice to add a fresh slant to the theme. Since everyone is unique, nobody is ever going to tackle a theme in quite the same way. So there is still room for you to add your imprint.

What you’ve got to be careful of is that the theme doesn’t drown out your characters or story. It’s through your characters and plot that your theme comes alive and resonates with readers. If the theme dominates, the book becomes too heavy and readers will end up feeling that they’re being preached to. An example of that is Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, where the characters stood for different attitudes to the land and being at one with nature and the underlying expectation was that the reader would agree that there was no alternative to being at one with the land.

The reason why To Kill a Mockingbird has endured is because its theme of injustice, particularly racial injustice, is still something we experience today. Lionel Shriver won the Orange Prize for her courage in in tackling the theme of what happens when a mother doesn’t bond with her child in We Need to Talk About Kevin. When theme-based novels work, they stand tall.

What themes draw you as a reader, or as a writer? What theme-based novels have worked for you?

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