Themes - What are they and how are they used?

Themes are not always foremost in a writer’s mind when writing, but every good book needs a theme, or two.
So what exactly are themes?
The theme of a novel or short story is about the core topics or principles covered in the story, the things readers don’t always first realise. They are the lessons the story wishes to teach and the deeper meanings it wants readers to uncover. Essentially theme is about the meaning of the story.
Themes can happen naturally during the course of writing, or they can be pre-planned by the author, who might have definitive issues he or she may want to explore.
What is their function?
Firstly, themes should not be confused with plot. They are very different things and both have very different functions. Plot represents what your story is about. Themes represent the meanings within the story.
Themes embody the different subjects that might surface during writing. Stories need them in order to help the reader understand the concept of the story. Themes often take a backseat to the main plot, but their function shouldn’t be underestimated.
For instance, what if you had a story about two characters that are fighting in a war on opposing sides, but they are thrown together during the conflict? That’s the main plot, but the themes that might underpin the story are interesting to explore, such as a theme of hatred of each other and what each represents. Or what about the theme of conflict and the terrible repercussions that accompany it? What about the theme of tolerance and understanding? Perhaps there is room for a theme of forgiveness.
You could incorporate all of these themes, or different ones, because they relate directly to the plot.
The thing to understand with theme is that you don’t have to stick to just one theme. Many novels have several themes running through the story. There are no rules here; writers can have as many or as few themes as they wish. The best advice here is not to overload the narrative, so three or four important themes are more than ample.
Are they necessary in fiction?
Often themes emerge without the writer even noticing. A simple love story could carry several themes. The obvious ones would be love and lust, but it might also involve betrayal or deceit. These are valid themes for this kind of story.
A crime novel might have darker themes running through it – deceit, vengeance, hate. A sci-fi might explore themes of discovery, knowledge or humanity.
I recently wrote a short horror story, Bait and Chase, about two gamblers who, through their greed, ended up fighting each other to the death for the pleasure of others. The main theme was about greed, what it does to people and the consequences it brings. Other themes covered irrational fears, the kind we all have, and the feelings of remorse. The story also covered the primitive urge of flight or fight – the need to stay alive, no matter what.
These themes ran through the entire story, they’re not overt, but instead subtle, in the background, where they gave the story relevance, detail and the deeper meanings that readers always appreciate.
The list of genres and themes are endless, but it gives you an idea of how they interact with the main plot.
So, to answer the question, themes are necessary in fiction if you want to give your reader more than just a standard plot. Themes help us explore what is happening around us, it helps us to understand humanity – why we do the things we do, what makes us all tick.  And writing is primarily the exploration of why people do what they do, for whatever reasons. Humanity has always tried to provide answers to everything.  Writers are no different.  Even the simplest story needs explanation, and themes help writers to get their message across to the reader.
Don’t be too worried when you start writing that you haven’t any main themes and you think have to arrange or force themes into the story. Don’t force them. They will emerge naturally as you characterise, plot and write. 
More advanced or methodical writers, however, may wish to plan the kind of themes required for their specific genre/plot, and will study the subjects closely in order to get a feel for what they want.
As already stated, there are no written rules. Writers choose whatever method suits.  But the main thing is to have those themes in order to help your readers understand the story, the characters and the message you want to get across.
Next week: Redundancy in fiction writing
©Bait and Chase, 2013, Thirteen O’clock Publications


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