The theme of a story is what the whole thing is about. And I don’t mean the events that happen, that’s the plot. So, what is theme more specifically? It’s the message that the writer is trying to convey to the reader through their story. All good narratives, regardless of medium, have a strong theme. Have you ever watched a movie that seemed really deep? It probably had a theme, theme is what adds depth, thematic depth. On the other side, a story without depth seems shallow of flat.
Jurassic Park’s theme was that humans can’t control nature. Assassin’s Creed’s theme was: be willing to question your leaders and consider all evidence in doing so. The theme of the novel I’m working on is of reforming the laws, focusing on enabling the redemption of convicts. The example I’ll use for good thematic depth is from a video game. Video games often get away without having a theme, in fact, they don’t even need a plot! So, when a game goes through the effort to develop its narrative to the point where it has theme, surely that’s something noteworthy.
Tales of Symphonia has a long, epic, weaving plot. It’s loaded with sub-themes such as injustice, doing what’s right no matter the circumstances, and sacrifice. Sacrifice and deception are also big. But, I think the overarching theme is discrimination. That’s probably what fascinated me as a child. I’ve always been interested in discrimination, balance, fairness, racism, and even just bias. The theme is constantly working in the background but doesn’t truly surface until about a third into the game, when the characters go to a more developed world. They come to a place where there are structured social classes, and worse, blatant racism of half-elves. I wonder if this is some sort of comment on developed nations?
So, on to the title question. When should you have a theme? By that, I don’t mean when do you need a theme. The answer to that should be obvious, you always want to have a theme unless you’re trying to write a mediocre story. Rather, I ask, when do you need to have your theme? Many pants writers just write and worry about the plot as they go. Can theme be treated the same way, or does it require careful planning beforehand?
There’s a very valuable YouTuber I recently found, and he says you need a premise right away. That makes sense, as you should know what’s going on in your book from the start. He speaks of premise a lot like it’s also the theme of your book. This might be the case sometimes, but consider that the premise of Symphonia is something like, “Lloyd Irving’s friend is the chosen one who is to overcome many trials to save the world.” Further, Saving the world becomes more difficult to do than it appears, however, as not only do they face the expected threat of Desians (an evil organisation) and also the Chosen’s trials (dungeons), but it seems that an assassin who rejects salvation is also trying to kill them. Why would someone want to doom their own world by stopping the chosen one from completing their journey? Notice that this has nothing to do with discrimination, and yet that’s the theme, the main driving force of the antagonist. Anyway, tangents on Symphonia aside, a premise you should have at the start, a one paragraph explanation of what your book is about, the shorter the better.
Theme is just like plot, it really comes down to how you write, or how you’re choosing to write. You can have a theme at the beginning and build a plot that conveys it. I’m certain that that’s what Michael Crichton has done for many of his books, especially State of Fear, about global warming being used as for social and monetary gain. Alternatively, you could do what I’ve been doing, and find it as you go. I highly suggest doing a bit of planning though, as you can get lost in a messy plot and lose track of both what’s going on and what your theme should be.
As I wrote my novel, codenamed Natasha, I wasn’t sure what the theme was. Actually I really just wanted to finally write a novel. I planned it out all the way, just an outline, and wrote. Well, I’m about a third the way through, and I’m only now realizing what my theme is. The book focuses on reform, specifically the reform of the law in the Solune Kingdom. It also has redemption as a sub-theme. The theme can also come about accidentally. When I wrote Alice and Finch: Negative Dawn, now simply called Inck, I had one mission, to record what happened to Alice’s mother, and show how she got into the Solune Kingdom even though it’s walled off. My theme ended up being that which a parent will endure for their child. I don’t recommend following this route though, as it’s much easier to accidentally not have a theme than to accidentally get one! Although, I had a very specific premise, and I had the whole thing mapped out in my mind, so that likely helped.
Theme is very important, maybe even the most important story element, and yet it’s often neglected, not talked about nearly as much as Plot, Character, or Setting. Of course, this is the way of the world, people often forget to mention the most important things!
Don’t forget your theme,
P.S. This post contains amazon affiliate links. All of the links are relevant, the Jurassic park link brings you to the novel, Jurassic Park. I’ll be deploying affiliates in future posts, but NOT in fiction posts. My narratives will remain clean and readable.
For those unaware of how affiliate marketing works, essentially it’s a link to a product, in this case on amazon.ca. If you buy the product in the link, I get a portion of the money.
I don’t know why I’m so nervous about offending readers, really, large blogs do this in a lot of posts. I’m sure you’ve seen it. Maybe I’ll put the links at the bottom, loud and clear and leave the post clean? We’ll see.