Theme is one of those topics us novelists either spend too much time worrying about or none at all. Those of you who do not plot, who we call "pansters," especially avoid the subject. Plotters often write out our story them and post it over our desk to ensure we never stray from our story core.
Either way is fine. The fact is, your theme will grow out of your story whether you carefully plan it or give no thought to it whatsoever. If you don't claim a theme, your readers certainly will. Whether a plotter or panster, however, I will suggest that you state your theme early in the novel. The plotter can do it upon typing the first draft. The panster will want to come back and insert it later. But, either way, it's a powerful tool that will plant a seed in your reader's mind, one that will have a huge pay off.
Start out by writing down your theme. Again, this can happen before you begin your novel, or after you've completed the first or even second draft. Themes are not complex creatures. They're very vague and can apply to a multitude of story ideas. In fact, some authors use the same theme over and over throughout their careers. And why not? If it works and the readers love it, why change?
Here a few examples of theme:
Okay, those are off the top of my head. You can probably come up with a few of your own. But see? Themes are not specific. They are not your one-sentence summary, idea, or premise. These are a bit more specific (and yes, we will be talking about them again!).
So stop here and jot down a them for a story you're thinking of or one you've written. Go ahead. I'll check my Instagram likes while I wait...
Got it? Good.
Now, I want you to write a short scene for this story. Just a paragraph or two. And I want you--or more specifically, one of your characters--to state the theme. I will use the opening scene from my upper middle-grade historical, SCORPION SUMMER. Eleven year-old Jack and his dad are looking for seashells on the beach in Norfolk, Virgina, in January of 1968. My theme: For one thing to live, another must die.
Dad stares out into the gray forever of the Atlantic, cold water sliding up his bare shins as the waves roll past.
A clump of seaweed looks promising so I give a kick. A half-eaten fish rolls out.
Dad turns and looks at the fish. "Way of the sea!" he shouts over the hiss of the wind and waves. "And nature. Something has to die in order for something else to live and grow."
See how simple that was? You don't have to quote your theme verbatim. I certainly didn't. And I've casted a nice foreshadow for what will follow (yes, Dad will be lost with his sub, the USS Scorpion, America's last sub to be lost at sea).
The absolute best way to state your theme is through dialogue, as I've shown here. If you do it through the narrative, it comes across as author intrusion. So get your hero together with another character, who will state the theme to her. Your hero, of course, will be resistant to this theme, because it's early in the novel and she hasn't changed yet! By the way, the more tension-filled the dialogue, the better.
Besides writing your own short paragraph to state your theme, be on the lookout for this technique in the films you watch or the books you read. It usually comes within the first chapter of a book or first few minutes of a film. You've probably never noticed, which means the writer has done his job well. But a seed was planted in your mind as the story progressed. If done well, a theme stated will have a huge pay off at the end.
Feel free to share! If you have a theme in mind and\or an example paragraph to go with it, We'd love to see it. Leave it in the comments below.