Is Theme Important in Writing?


Theme – What I Used to Think

There was a time (early on in my writing) when I thought paying attention to theme was dumb. The story is the story. What is the point to adding unnecessary baggage?

I would poo-poo people who talked about how important it was to identify the theme early in your stories. Again, if you had good characters and a good plot or plots, the rest would take care of itself, wouldn’t it?

That was then, this is now

As you might have already gathered, my opinion has changed regarding theme. I don’t know if that’s because I’ve become more mature in my writing or simply more aware, but I now believe theme is important.

Yup. You are hearing me admit I was wrong.

But Why is it Important?

But why is it important to me? Well, for starters, knowing your theme in advance will help you to guide your characters better. For example, in the novel I’m working on currently (Mik Murdoch 4) my main character, Mik, is being faced with emotional challenges he has never dealt with before. In this case, a girl likes him. The underlying theme is, things change as we grow and mature; nothing stays the same. Relationships change, how we see ourselves change.

This is, by no means, the main plot to the story. It does, however, give me more insight into why the characters are acting the way they do. That includes Mik, the girl who likes Mik and the other relationships within the story. It adds a character complexity I simply would not have had otherwise.

Character Complexity

Character complexity: yes you heard me correctly. Some stories demand multiple, complex plot lines with lots of characters. Some do not. But, characters need to be rich and multidimensional. Part of that is achieved by showing how they react to others in various situations. I see theme as being a fundamental driver towards that richness of character.

How your Reader Interacts with the Story

I also see theme as guiding your reader. They may not even realize it’s there but they feel something familiar – themes tend to be pretty universal, after all. In fiction, especially fiction that employs exotic locales, that familiarity gives the reader something to identify with even when everything else is strange.

The Soul of the Story

This might sound weird, but I almost see the theme as the soul of the story. I’ve read books that have felt empty; I’m starting to think that might be because the story didn’t really know itself. Theme seems to give it that missing depth.

Is it Okay to Use More than One Theme?

I think it’s fine to use multiple themes. But, just like plot lines and characters, I also think it’s possible to have too many. After all, confusing the reader doesn’t do you or your stories any good. It also keeps the reader from getting the full experience of your story (and coming back for more).

New Perspective: Theme = Good

I am a changed writer. I now believe in theme. In fact, when I’m getting plot ideas, I’m often getting theme ideas at the same time. It helps me to build out some of the minor plot lines and figure out how my characters interact.

I hope this means I’m continuing my journey of writer growth.


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