When we teach writers how to write a novel or a memoir, we always emphasise how crucial theme is in this process. The best novels and the most life-changing memoirs you will ever read are the ones that help you discover a truth about the human condition.
A theme in a book should never be stated but should be developed through character change and plot escalation. In The Art of Dramatic Writing Lajos Egri says well-defined characters drive plots. He emphasizes the consistency of change in life. Characters have to adapt, evolve and ‘synthesize’ new philosophies. They do this after facing many overwhelming obstacles.
What is a theme?
- Theme is the central idea of the story.
- It is better if it is a full statement, with a subject and a verb.
- It sums up what the story shows us about the human condition. It is not a moral. It is simply a statement.
- Crime pays.
- Honesty is the best policy.
- Who dares wins.
- Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
- Home is where the heart is.
- The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.
- You never really know anybody.
- People are predictable.
- People with nothing to lose are dangerous.
- Love conquers all.
- What does not kill you makes you stranger.
- Blood is thicker than water.
- You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.
Three steps to finding a theme
If you understand your plot, the parts your characters play in the story, and the effects this plot will have on your characters’ lives, you will find the meaning of your story. Once you understand the meaning, you will find the theme.
- What is the story about? This is usually the plot of the story. Example: My story is about a man who hunts down the men who were acquitted after they killed his family.
- What is the meaning behind the story? This is usually an abstract result of his actions. Example: My story says that when the system fails a person who has lost everything, he will find out how far he is prepared to go.
- What is the theme? This is a statement about the human condition. Example: People with nothing to lose are dangerous.
Lajos Egri gives this simple formula to develop a theme.
The Lajos Egri Theme Cheat Sheet:
____________________ leads to _______________________
Example: Your wife committing adultery leads to you finding out you never really know anyone.
Example: Embezzling money from your company and getting caught leads to you understanding honesty is the best policy.
Example: A woman who meddles in other people’s marriages leads to her realising that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
Once you have a theme for your book, use it to check if a scene fits in your novel. Ask yourself: Does every scene build your story's theme?
Amanda is the founder of Writers Write. Her signature course, Writers Write, specializes in the teaching of fiction writing. Email email@example.com if you want to find out more about this course.
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