What is Theme?

By Gail Gaymer Martin

One of the most difficult terms to define is theme. While sometimes called the lesson, moral or main idea behind the story, theme is really more than that. A parable has a lesson and a fable has a moral which is obvious to the listener or reader, but theme serves more as a profound portrayal of the human condition.

Theme weaves through the plot, setting, and characters in a translucent thread that the reader extracts from his own experience or values. It communicates something deeper to readers than plot or story. Theme triggers an emotional response from readers, and without an emotion reaction, the story’s theme is usually weak or non-existent, or too vague to be comprehended.

Theme presents an infinite truth that makes a powerful impact on readers. It is often tangled in the goal of a the protagonist. It triggers emotion which is what clings to readers once the pages on the book have been closed and makes the story worth reading. Emotion has power to transport your story beyond entertainment as the theme provides the impact of a universal meaning to your story.

This may sound vague, but theme is abstract, providing the heartbeat of your story. It cannot be forced. Authors bring it to life by allowing the story’s truths to slip into the action, dialogue, introspection, and soul of the characters.

Some try to summarize this process by explaining it this way. Ask yourself, what did you learn from this novel? How did it touch you? Joy Cagil, author of a blog on fiction writing, suggests you ask this: what is the protagonist’s biggest decision to resolve the story’s conflict? These questions are about as close as you can get to defining theme. It is the underlying principle that motivates the protagonist to reach his goal, and it is a truth—belief or perspective—which most people hold in common.

Common themes might be that good defeats evil, money causes corruption, love makes the world go round, lies begat lies, gossip destroys, success is not measured by a bank account, jokes can backfire, friends stand by your side, people were not meant to be alone, freedom is better than servitude, love conquers all. I’m sure you can think of many, many others.

Think of novels you’ve read that have stuck with you and ask yourself: why do you still remember this story? Besides plot, what message or value or truth did it leave you with? How did it impact your emotions? What did you take away with you when the book was finished? When you find the answer, you’ve most likely identified the theme of the novel.

Multi-award-winning novelist, Gail Gaymer Martin writes Christian fiction for Love Inspired and has written for Barbour Publishing, where she was honored by Heartsong readers as their Favorite Author of 2008. Gail has fifty contracted novels with over three million books in print. She is the author of Writers Digest’s Writing the Christian Romance. Gail is a co-founder of American Christian Fiction Writers, a keynote speaker at churches, libraries and civic organizations and presents workshops at conference across the US. She was named one of the four best novelists in the Detroit area by CBS local news. She lives with her husband in a northwest Detroit suburb. Visit her website at www.gailmartin.com. Her next new book, Her Valentine Hero, released Feb 2012.  She  also has a reissue of an award-winning romantic suspense (plus finalist status in 4 other national contest) Finding Christmas, Harlequin Direct to Customer, November 2012.

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