The varying degrees of theme.

T is for Theme

I never really got theme except that it was the meaning behind the story, the message. I didn’t give much thought to it. I do now.

Theme is the controlling idea that drives the novel. It goes hand in hand with the internal conflict of the main character. If you aren’t sure what the theme of you story is then look at the struggles of your main character.

And I’ve noticed depending on the book there are different levels of theme. They go from one extreme to the other.

Literary / character driven novel

This kind of novel is big on theme, symbolism, and layers. It’s everywhere on every page. The story follows the life of a character. As Margo pointed it out in her recent post, there’s more micro tension than big story tension.

Literary / character-driven novel with a big hook (like death or special powers)

These books end up being award winners because they attract a large audience but also leave the reader with a strong emotional impact due to theme. The story has the big hook but that’s not really what the story is about. It’s still more about the character.

Literary / commercial / possibly high concept

This novel is my favorite. It is both plot and character driven. It is extremely well written, strong internal conflicts, theme, and character arc yet the story has high stakes.

Plot driven with a strong emphasis on character

I added this in this morning because often times we have stories that aren’t really high concept but aren’t literary either. This kind of story could be strengthened with the use of the theme through emphasizing the character’s arc and internal conflict. Stories only improve by having a strong character arc. No matter how plot driven they might be.

Commercial / plot-driven, high concept novel

I also love these stories but they tend not to stay with me as long. The focus of the story is not on theme. It’s part of the internal conflict but the emphasis is on the plot and how the characters deal with obstacles. This kind of story is usually on a lower reading level with not as much use of imagery, poetic and rhetorical devices. It’s not worse just a different style of writing.

Of course there are stories that fall somewhere in between.

Which kind do you like to read? And on which level does your writing fall? How much do you consider theme when writing?


19 Responses to The varying degrees of theme.

  1. Kris April 23, 2011 at 10:44 am #

    Hmmm. I haven’t always understood theme either. I like the way you’ve broken down and described the various categories themes fall into.

    I guess I’m writing commercial, plot driven fiction right now. 🙂

    Hope you had a good week!

    • Laura April 23, 2011 at 11:20 am #

      And I”m still grasping it too. I did add a category after you read this because I believe you story is both plot driven and character driven.

      Another of my favorite kind of stories is the high concept plot driven story that manages to have emotional power through the character arc. In fact, that emotional power is what makes or breaks these novels for me. It’s the emotional power that makes any story written on any level stay with me. The reason they are on a lower reading level is because the sentences aren’t as complex. The focus is on the story. As it should. A complex flowery sentence wouldn’t really fit in a thriller. Ya know?

      Unless you take like Diary of Wimpy Kid which is just really one long stand up comedy routine about middle school. 🙂

  2. Laura Marcella April 23, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    I like them all! I don’t focus on theme in the planning; it seems to emerge on its own as I’m writing.

  3. Jessica Bell April 23, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    Theme plays a MAJOR role in my writing as I write literary fiction. There are symbolisms EVERYWHERE. It just comes naturally to me, I guess I have a poetic mind. love the idea of ‘micro tension’. That is so spot on!

    • Laura April 23, 2011 at 11:53 am #

      Jessica – String Bridges I think would be the perfect example of the first category. If it’s anything like your poetry, I’m sure it’s a beautiful story!

      Laura – Theme is definitely something to focus on during revisions. Or focus on the character arc and making it stronger.

  4. Kate Stewart April 23, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    I think it was Stephen King who said you shouldn’t know what the theme of your novel is until you’ve finished writing it, otherwise you’re liable to get ‘preachy’.

  5. erica and christy April 23, 2011 at 12:34 pm #

    this is a super post. super. i’ve also heard one won’t know the theme of the novel until later, that it will develop while writing. i wish i had a poetic mind, but i don’t. christy

    • Laura April 23, 2011 at 2:12 pm #

      I guess writers could possibly get preachy if they decide ahead of time what their theme is. But I usually have an idea going in because it’s tied up with my character’s internal conflict. But yes, often times, things like that change as we write the first draft. Theme is often better layered in during rewrites when we know for sure.

  6. Donna Weaver April 23, 2011 at 2:43 pm #

    I like to read all kinds of things … as long as it’s fiction.

  7. Ansha Kotyk April 23, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    Great breakdown on theme. I was going to say genre and theme. And you’ve got me thinking, how do specific genres use theme.. hmmm

  8. Shelli April 23, 2011 at 6:28 pm #

    The best place to uncover theme in a novel is in a book club. I love discussing what we liked and didn’t like, and then go into the different meanings we discovered in the novel. I think it has made me more aware of themes in my own stories, so when I stumble upon them, I can then purposely reinforce them.

  9. Leigh Moore April 23, 2011 at 6:59 pm #

    I’m w/you on favorite type–literary-commercial-maybe high-concept. And great breakdown of themes! I don’t always sit and think this out, but it’s a useful exercise! :o) <3

    • Laura April 23, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

      🙂 Lately, I’ve been thinking about everything. And honestly, it’s really made a difference in my writing. It’s good to think.

  10. Sarah Allen April 23, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    Wow, I really like this break down of categories. It fits well with how I see things. I enjoy reading all of them, but I’d have to say that my writing probably falls in the second category, lit/character with hook. At least that’s what I’m aiming for. Great post!

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  11. Margo April 24, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    Oops, I think I just lost my comment – sorry if this comes through twice. Here we go again: thanks for mentioning my post! I love just about all of these types of novels, but my favorite are the ones that have a good balance of literary and commercial devices.

    I love to see the “theme” develop from my characters and their conflicts in the first draft. Then in the second draft I go back through and add symbolism and a little dialogue to draw it out more.

  12. Elle Strauss April 24, 2011 at 12:06 am #

    I struggle with identifying theme in both my own and other books. maybe because there’s often more than one.

    • Laura April 24, 2011 at 12:22 am #

      There sometimes is more than one theme but sometimes in commercial high concept fiction it’s harder to find because it’s not emphasized. I look to see what the main character is struggling with. Take for example Paranormalcy. Not a literary book at all. But if you look at Evie – she’s dealing with a sense of belonging. Where does she belong? And just who is her family. So I’d bring it back to family. Is family considered those who you can trust or those who have raised you? It’s been a while since I read the book but that’s what I remember. Evie’s feeling of being a bit lost in the PCA.

  13. Laura Josephsen April 24, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    I’m all about the characters. I love reading the stories that connect me to the characters and if there’s a high-concept plot, I care about it because the characters do, or because it will affect them, or something HUGE is happening and they must stop it/fix it/etc., and I tend to write the same kind of stories.

  14. Karen Strong April 24, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    There is nothing I love more than a high-concept but high quality writing novel.

    Sometimes, “literary” can be boring (NOT always but sometimes) so I love it when I can have both worlds.

    As for writing, I never know the theme until like the 2nd or 3rd revision. Every time I tried to write a “theme” it usually falls flat. I just let it happen organically.

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