This post is all about theme. We will explore the definition of a theme, give you examples of themes, and we will go through three steps that will help you find your theme in your story.
When we teach writers how to write a novel or a memoir, we emphasise how crucial theme is in the 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 changes and plot escalation.
In The Art Of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri says well-defined characters drive plots. He emphasises the consistency of change in life. Characters have to adapt, evolve and ‘synthesise’ 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.
- Blood is thicker than water.
- You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.
- What does not kill you makes you stranger.
It’s About The Meaning
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.
3 Steps To Help You Find Your Story’s Theme
Ask these three questions to find your theme.
1. What is the story about?
This is 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.
2. 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.
3. What is the lesson?
This is a statement about the human condition.
Example: People with nothing to lose are dangerous.
The Lajos Egri Theme Cheat Sheet:
Lajos Egri gives this simple formula to develop a theme.
____________________ leads to _______________________
- Your wife committing adultery leads to you finding out you never really know anyone.
- Embezzling money from your company and getting caught leads to you understanding honesty is the best policy.
- A woman who meddles in other people’s marriages leads to her realising that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
How A Theme Helps
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 Patterson
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