I went out last weekend with my husband, sister and brother-in-law for dinner and to watch the musical “Avenue Q.”
It was a really funny play—sort of a risqué puppet show. As silly as it was, I noticed that it had an underlying theme to it—the search for one’s purpose in life. Actually, this theme wasn’t underlying at all—they put “Purpose” up on two big screens in a Sesame-Street-esque video to draw attention to it and poke a little fun at it.
The fact that a musical puppet show could bring up theme in such a huge way made me think about the element in my own books.
Theme isn’t something I’ve thought about or deliberately planned into my books. But genre fiction has themes, too. I write traditional mysteries, so the big picture idea of my books is good vs. evil set in the form of a puzzle.
Not only that, but I do have underlying themes that I seem to come back to over and over and in different series. Did I mean to do this? Actually, no. Apparently, theme can act like the songs that get stuck in our head all day—we just keep repeating them over and over until our brain makes sense of them.
Do our characters have common problems that they encounter or work to address? My protagonists usually live alone (and enjoy it…usually) and encounter intergenerational stresses. They experience the changing roles and role-reversals that come with age. Neither of these things applies to me, but I’m apparently interested in these topics and see a lot of people dealing with them.
Theme doesn’t have to be on an epic or literary scale. Have you noticed a certain repetition of ideas or problems in your books? Even small ones? Do your characters have the same types of transformations? If so, this might point to an underlying theme in your books. It really can be just an idea we’re exploring…sometimes for more than one book. Heck, sometimes for more than one series.
Theme has an impact on our characters, too, and can make them have more layers. It can affect their view of the world and how they handle different types of conflict. It can provide internal conflict, too. It helps them come alive as they complete a character arc. Because the characters are exploring the themes on the page.
Need help finding your theme or developing one? There was a nice post some time back on the Yingle Yangle blog that featured some helpful questions to ask yourself. Janice Hardy has a nice post on developing theme. And Larry Brooks has a post called Finding – and Leading With — Theme on his StoryFix blog.
As a reader, do you spot theme quickly? Is it something you think about as you write?
And...thanks so much to the folks at Writer's Digest for choosing Mystery Writing is Murder as one of their Top 101 Best Sites for Writers for 2011. :) It's truly an honor.