Saturday, July 30, 2016

Question about Theme

Question received from Ann Day:
I want to make my theme stronger in a novel. Any hints about that?  
     Yes, Ann. Many people aren't aware how important theme is...or how many methods there are to show what the theme of a story or novel are. Theme is an element of fiction that includes mood,  tone, and voice. Below are some of the ways to work your central theme into your novel.
Theme: Point of the story prompted by the author’s viewpoint, values, and beliefs.  Theme reflects an opinion, not a fact.  The world is just or unjust, people are basically good or basically bad, selfish or unselfish, life is random or not. Theme equals the morals at the end of fables.
*Theme can be expressed through action & events.  EX: natural disaster, which can present a theme of human frailty or nature’s indifference to humans. EX: a journey, which equals learning experiences (Huck Finn on the river & journeying to less racist ideas, Moby Dick, etc.)
*Theme can be expressed through symbolism—a literal object that agrees with the theme: concrete to abstract.  EX: a decaying house representing decaying morals.  A clock ticking in a story about how quickly or slowly time passes. 
*Theme can be expressed through imagery: descriptive & figurative language, & word choices.  EX: adjectives, word pictures, verb choices.  The hero described as positive and attractive, the villain as the opposite. Verbs that connote negative or positive meaning—“she slashed at the fragile plants” or “she pruned away the dead branches.”
*Theme can be expressed through character.  To find the theme, ask these questions about the main character: Has s/he learned anything?  What?  How has this knowledge changed him/her?
Mood – the atmosphere of the story’s “little world” that combines the effect of the setting, characters, theme, plot, & dialogue.
Tone – The attitude expressed by the piece that shows how the author feels using setting, characters, theme, plot, & dialogue.  Sometimes tone shows how a main character feels, especially if s/he is narrating in 1st person like an author. 
*Setting choices that influence tone and mood include kind of architecture (castle, cottage, office bldg.), weather, props (flowers or plants, furnishings, animals, geologic features, foods, smells, sounds, tastes, textures).  Contrasting settings works to emphasize mood too.
*Character sets—by evoking reader feelings: dislike, admiration, fear, anger, sympathy. 
*Language use adds to tone and mood through sentence length: short equals movement and excitement while long and flowing equals peaceful or hindered feeling.  Uncommon sentence structure can be used for effect—fragments, lists, run-ons.  Vocabulary can create an informal or formal feel.  Long, expressive words are about feelings and emotions while short, simple words are about action.  Similes and metaphors evoke feelings. EX: fragrant as a rose OR carcass of an old car.  Even punctuation, dashes, exclamation points, quotes, can show tone/mood.  EX: to show scorn sometimes–He felt “poorly.” 
Voice – a term used in literary criticism to identify the sense a written work conveys to a reader of its writer’s attitude, personality, and character.  As in the case with the closely related term TONE, VOICE reflects the habit of thinking of writing as a mode of speech.  Inexperienced writers are often instructed to “get more of your own voice into your writing.”  The concept of voice is sometimes compared to Aristotle’s concept of ethos, the personal image projected by an orator.  The main difference I see between voice and tone is that tone refers to a specific piece and can change between pieces.  EX:  Dickens “tone” in The Christmas Carol is angry, while in The Old Curiosity Shop it is sad.  His voice is strongly humanitarian and does not change between pieces and books, though he chooses to bring it out differently and in varying levels, depending on the focus of the book. The Christmas Carol is inspirational and fun while The Old Curiosity Shop is early dystopian or naturalist genre (where everything ends badly, especially for the main character).

Any more specific questions, Ann?  
Let me know and thanks for bringing your question to me at the writers blog!


  1. I wanted to thank you for this post about themes because I know themes are where my prehistoric novel project fell apart. Your post got me thinking about it again. I started the project with a bunch of feelings, issues, memories and expected the themes to emerge like little stems and leaves growing in soil, water and sunlight. Didn't happen. I could not get my themes under control because they were all over the place: life, love, good and evil, the universe and everything including possible alternate realities. So you see I'm still struggling with themes, there are so many, they are everywhere. Maybe if I could just prioritize a few. But no. Undecideable.

    1. Randyl: A lot of people express something like this. What I've found in my own work is that themes that have the power to carry a whole book are ones that are reallllly specific to me. Not just good and evil or something general like that, but what it felt like to be raised as a young musician and put into brutal competition with others before 13. That's the Soloists theme. Or how sad it felt to me to hear the stories of my English as 2nd Language students who had left countries they loved due to terrible experiences and fear. Then came to the US and had some terrible experiences here. (Theme of The Queen of Mean) In both those cases,it was really personal in a specific way. I hope that helps. I've always hoped that book would make it to publishing! Ariele