Theme is one of the most important parts of a writing a book — but it’s also hard to execute without feeling like you are beating the reader over the head with “and the moral of this story is…”
Thankfully, there are a few tricks to incorporating theme into your first draft that don’t involve ignoring theme and don’t have you rubbing your reader’s face in it either.
1) Make sure your theme is the foundation of your overarching plot
The best way to make theme an integral part of your story is to build it right into the foundation. You can do this by asking yourself some questions that explore the connection between your plot and your theme: Why does this plot captivate me? Why do I want to write this particular story? What message does this story communicate? Is that the message I want it to communicate? If not, how can I adjust my plot to reflect the right message?
Say I’m writing a story about Brenda, a thirty-year-old spinster who believes she is too ugly to ever find true love. Say I really want to write a transformation story–I’m captivated by the idea that Brenda gets a makeover and finds true love. But if I just stop at Brenda getting a makeover and finding true love, the theme is scary close to something like being beautiful is the only way to really be loved. Ew!
So I return to my plot, and I add a few elements. First, she will have a geeky best guy friend who secretly loves her. She will find true love with a man who loved her before her transformation. That’s better, but the theme is still not where I want it. So I decide that Brenda will transform and finally appear beautiful, but she will still not feel beautiful, which is where she learns that in order to feel beautiful, you have to love yourself exactly as you are. Bingo! That’s my theme. Feeling beautiful is more about your internal perspective of self than anything external.
2) Connect your main character’s transformation to the theme
As you plan out the character arc of your protagonist, ask yourself what s/he will learn, and how she will change. If your plot is already grounded in your theme, your character’s growth will automatically connect to your theme. If not, tweak it until the character transformation relates to your story’s theme.
In Brenda’s case, she will learn that being beautiful isn’t what she thought it would be–in fact even when she is objectively beautiful, she feels ugly. This will send her down the path of learning what it takes to feel beautiful (which, she will discover, comes from loving yourself, flaws and all).
3) Add symbolic objects to your story based on your theme
Another way to incorporate theme is to include symbolic objects in your story. These could be anything from small trinkets to elements of the setting. Play around with various objects that might be important and meaningful to your character and see if they might relate to your theme with a bit of tweaking.
In Brenda’s story, her bedroom mirror would be symbolic. I’d make the mirror somewhat flawed, maybe a little bit of a blurred image or with a scratch on it so what is seen in the mirror isn’t what is real. This could develop a few themes of it’s own, but would also be the proof that Brenda has grown and changed when she finally looks in the mirror and believes that she is beautiful no matter what the mirror shows her.
If you’re stumped for what symbolic objects you might include, brainstorm a list of objects related to the big ideas in your theme. See which ones spark your imagination and fit with your story.
4) Use other characters to compare and contrast with your theme
From minor side characters to major sidekicks, your main character is surrounded by other humans bumbling through the story alongside her. Put them to work bringing out your theme by highlighting their character traits, backstories, and subplots as they compare and contrast with what your main character is struggling through.
For example, in Brenda’s story, she’d have a gorgeous sister who is everything Brenda wants to be — attractive, confident, and sought after by men. But she would be missing something. Maybe she is happily married to a Ken Doll but part way through the book, Brenda finds out they are divorcing, calling into question Brenda’s theory that beautiful people find true love and live a “charmed” life.
I’d also add a spry older woman, maybe a grandma, who is completely confident and happy in her body even though she is ninety and not the cookie-cutter beautiful that Brenda longs for.
These characters would support the theme in their own right, but would also be like sandpaper for Brenda, slowly scratching away at her misbelief about external appearance and love.
5) Use imagery to illustrate your theme
If you know your character and theme well, you will naturally start including imagery that points back to your theme as you write. If you are still fleshing them out, however, you can start by putting yourself in your character’s shoes. Think about what they might notice in their surroundings. Jot down all of your ideas and then go back and highlight the ones that connect to your theme, then be sure to add that imagery to your scenes.
For example, say Brenda is visiting the spry old lady mentioned above and she notices the peeling wallpaper in her house, the outdated furniture, and the dinginess of this old lady’s home. Obsessed with external appearances, Brenda would notice these things and would probably make some sort of judgment or assumption based on it. She’d assume that the old lady was miserable looking at that every day.
Now you don’t have to explain the significance of peeling wallpaper to the reader, but explained or not, the image works to support Brenda’s character (she cares a great deal about external appearances) and connects to theme.
The basic trick to avoiding beating your reader over the head with theme is to work it into the blueprint of your story until it looks like it was always part of the original structure. Afterall, we don’t notice the insulation in the walls of our house, but we sure do feel it keeping us warm and dry.
And that’s all we want from theme in our stories–to feel it as we read like the warm sun on our faces, so soft and subtle that we don’t notice the source but only the pleasant warmth it gives us.
Ashly is a book coach and editor who believes that stories give us much needed hope–and we need as many stories in the world as we can get. She lives with her husband and daughter in the magical lands of the Pacific Northwest and spends her days supporting writers and working on her fantasy novel. Visit her website, www.InkandGraceEditing.com, for free writing resources.