Use a light hand with your novel’s theme

There’s a fine line between giving your novel a theme, delivering a message, and just being didactic. I’ll never tell you these things have no place in your book, because many great books have them. But when you do them, you must first of all embed them in an engaging story filled with characters readers care about. And you must handle these elements deftly.

Premise or theme is expressed subtly but consistently.

Here’s another Pixar rule: “Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it.” Which is another way of saying finish your first draft without worrying about theme. Focus on bringing out your theme in the editing.

© Serg Nvns -
© Serg Nvns –

In Writing Fiction for Dummies, Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy identify three aspects a good theme must have: truth, significance, and brevity.

Ideally, you’ll be able to sum up your theme in a single sentence, like “Mercy is greater than Justice” (The Merchant of Venice) or “Loyalty to God is more important than loyalty to the state” (Antigone).

Too often, new writers will blast the theme as if hitting the reader with a sledgehammer. If in your story you want to show the importance of honesty, having someone give the dishonest protagonist a lecture is probably too heavy-handed. The story exists to entertain the reader, not to hold up the premise on a pedestal so you can give a lecture about it. For example, the theme of Antigone is directly expressed in just one line she delivers to Creon. Then in the rest of the play we see the consequences of Creon’s refusal to accept that truth.

Putting the lecture in narrative is right out. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo could get away with that because their editors didn’t know any better. Great whacking chunks of those manuscripts would never survive the red pen of a modern editor.

Consider instead the subtlety of the dishonest protagonist who seems to get away with his lies but winds up emotionally tortured by his own conscience.

Use metaphors to hint at the theme. Did your protagonist perjure himself? What if he talks with his lawyer in the courthouse rotunda near the statue of blind justice?

Another aspect of not bludgeoning the reader with your theme is that hints to it should be placed throughout the story. It shouldn’t burst out of nowhere all at once. You may not discover your theme until you’ve written the ending. That’s fine.

As you edit, work in at least one hint at the beginning, middle, and end. But don’t force it. Just keep your eyes open for the possibilities. The theme should arise naturally out of what’s already in your book.

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