What's Your Theme?
Early in your writing, you'll want to think about your novel's focus, or theme. What is the purpose of your tale? What is the main point? Every novel has a theme, which is either stated or, more often, unveiled along with the story. Often the theme involves an insight about relationships or about life that the characters in the story discover through the situations they encounter and the ways they react to them.
For example, in William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness, a novel about a young girl and her difficult family who face great pain and tragedy, the theme is that love must endure if people are to endure. Jon Hassler's wonderful novel North of Hope centers on a priest who goes home after twenty years of missionary work to find there are few believers left in town, as well as people he loved facing problems at every turn. The theme here, the reader discovers by the book's end, is that faith — of varying kinds — can see people through their greatest despair.
How Do You Decide on a Theme?
A theme may already be roaming around in the back of your mind, or there may be an issue important to you that you don't yet realize is a theme but actually is one. For example, you may have a child who plays in the local soccer league, and her team has never won a game. But your daughter just loves getting up on Saturday mornings to meet her teammates and play as hard as she can — and she loves the big pancake breakfast that your family shares after every game. You really admire how she gives her sport her all — even though it's clear she's not going to end up with a trophy or a plaque. Here you can find a theme for a novel: winning isn't everything.
Themes are all around you. Check your personal life, check your beliefs, and check the newspaper. Have you recently read about a fire that caused dozens of strangers to help the victim? Your novel could revolve around the point that disaster can bring out the best in people. Or maybe you know about a young couple who went through endless struggles to adopt an orphan — a terrific example of “love conquers all.”
As you think of different themes, jot them down and consider them. Which one really resonates? Which feels like the right one for conveying something that's important to you? You probably won't want to actually write the words anywhere in your story, but by settling on a theme you'll give your novel direction and purpose, and have the basis for your characters, setting, and plot.
Themes often involve abstract ideas. The following list is based on Merrill Goddard's What Interests People and Why.