SPOILER WARNING for Avatar: The Last Airbender, particularly for the episodes The Painted Lady and The Southern Raiders.
Today’s post is a continuation of the last episode. Last time I talked about writing theme as a moral argument or question, but today I’m going to focus on whether or not you need to have a theme, why, and when you should be thinking of theme for your novel. Let’s do it!
DO YOU NEED TO HAVE A THEME?
I don’t want to worry about theme! Theme is for snobs! Can’t I write a story simply because I think dragons and giant swords are cool?
While theme isn’t going to fix a broken novel, having a theme will improve your writing.
I don’t say this to be a literary snob. I fully embrace the idea that novels that seek merely to provide escapism are worthy, even important. Here’s a great quote from Neil Gaiman that illustrates why:
“My cousin Helen, who is in her 90s now, was in the Warsaw ghetto during World War II. She and a bunch of the girls in the ghetto had to do sewing each day. And if you were found with a book, it was an automatic death penalty. She had gotten hold of a copy of ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and she would take three or four hours out of her sleeping time each night to read. And then, during the hour or so when they were sewing the next day, she would tell them all the story. These girls were risking certain death for a story. And when she told me that story herself, it actually made what I do feel more important. Because giving people stories is not a luxury. It’s actually one of the things you live and die for.”
This is such a powerful way to think of stories, and I want to make it clear that there’s nothing wrong with writing a novel that only wants to have fun.
But… I still think you should have a theme.
The reason for this is, first, because it will help you craft and edit your novel. (More on that in future posts). Second: even if you don’t take theme into consideration, you’re certainly going to write themes into your novel anyway, whether you realize it or not. If you don’t spend any time analyzing theme, the messages you unintentionally wrote into your story are probably going to feel haphazard at best. Possibly even problematic.
In one novel I read, the underlying theme seemed to be that consolidating power in the hands of a few elite was corruptive and morally wrong. Basically: monarchies are bad! That’s a theme I would normally be able to get behind, but the novel’s execution of it had me feeling constantly squeamish. Why?
The only major character in the entire novel who genuinely cared about others, who actively tried to make the world a better place, and who had a working moral compass was one of those elites with all the power. In contrast, the underdogs, who I should have been rooting for, often came across as spiteful, destructive, self-centred, and morally corrupt. I do not think that’s what the author intended to be my takeaway.
When I finished reading this novel, I felt frustrated. I felt annoyed with the majority of the characters, because the clumsy themes in the novel made characters who were supposed to be sympathetic look stupid and petty. If you don’t want to send mixed messages to your readers, you need to take a look at the themes you’ve written into your novel.
USING MULTIPLE THEMES
Can you have more than one theme in your novel? Absolutely! In this case themes are sort of like plots. You can have a main plot as well as a few sub-plots, and likewise you can have your main theme and a few smaller themes to accompany it. These “sub-themes,” like sub-plots, make your novel feel fuller, richer, deeper. Bonus points if your sub-themes support and intertwine with your main theme.
I’m going to use the show Avatar: The Last Airbender as an example here. In fact, I’m probably going to use Avatar: The Last Airbender as an example in a lot of Noveljutsu posts, because the show has some of the best characters, worldbuilding, and writing I’ve seen in just about anything. So, if you haven’t seen the show, first of all, can we even be friends?, and second of all—go watch it! Now!
The main theme of Avatar: The Last Airbender is that honour is something you obtain for yourself by treating those around you with kindness and mercy and by trying to make the world a better place. While anyone who has seen the show is going to associate this theme primarily with the first season antagonist, Zuko, regaining honour is also the primary drive for the series’ protagonist, Aang.
But Avatar has many, many other themes. It has themes regarding forgiveness, sexism, oppression, the atrocities of war and colonialism, leadership, child abuse, and the healing and lasting power of friendship. And nearly every one of those themes ties in to the theme of obtaining honour through humility, through showing kindness or mercy even when it isn’t deserved, and through making the world a better place, even when it gets in the way of personal goals.
In the episode The Painted Lady, Katara waylays the team’s important journey so she can help a struggling town feed its hungry, give the sick medical attention, and overthrow the factory that was the cause of the town’s hardship in the first place. She sacrifices her own goals to make even a small part of the world a better place. “I will never turn my back on people who need me.” In another important episode for Katara, The Southern Raiders, she comes face to face with the man who killed her mother and sees a man who is “pathetic, and sad, and empty.” Even though she can’t forgive him, she shows him undeserved mercy. Through themes of helping those in need, mercy, vengeance, and forgiveness, Avatar: The Last Airbender builds Katara into a multi-layered character who shows the viewers an example of how to act honourably. The show does this with nearly every. Single. Character. And it does it well.
So, now you know you need a theme and should probably have more than one (unless you write short fiction—the shorter the story, the fewer themes it has room for), but should you decide on the theme for your novel before or after you’ve written the first draft?
WHEN SHOULD YOU APPROACH THEME?
If you’re an outliner (someone who outlines their novels before writing them), all this planning before you write probably feels familiar to you. Comfortable. If you’re a discovery writer or “pantser” (someone who writes their stories without outlining all the details beforehand), trying to decide on the theme for your novel before you write it probably feels like a chore.
So, when’s the right time to think of theme? Before or after the first draft?
In The Anatomy of Story, John Truby stresses the importance of choosing a theme early on in the brainstorming process, but some successful writers would say you shouldn’t approach theme until you’ve finished writing your novel.
I’m a big fan of doing what works for you and ignoring advice that doesn’t, so let me reassure you discovery writers out there that it’s okay if you don’t think of theme until after you’ve written your first draft.
There are pros and cons to choosing a theme before or after you’ve finished your novel, so consider each of them and decide which approach feels best to you.
THE PROS AND CONS
Those who side with John Truby would say that choosing the theme early on allows you to choose characters, a setting, and plot that each work together to support and uplift your theme. If you know your theme ahead of time, it will help you decide who your protagonist and antagonist should be, how they will battle each other, and exactly how your main character must defeat your antagonist in the end.
However, successful writers like Brandon Sanderson would caution you against thinking of theme before you’ve written your novel. If you’re a long-time listener of the podcast Writing Excuses, you’ve probably heard Brandon Sanderson speak on this more than once. He has found, through his work both as a writer and as a teacher of writing, that those who have a theme in mind when they start their story run the risk of creating characters and plots that feel wooden or forced. Writers often get so attached to a theme they force their characters to make decisions that feel unnatural just to adhere to the theme.
I will also add to Sanderson’s points that, by settling on a theme early, you run the risk of getting so invested in it you come off as soapboxing. Even readers who agree with the point you’re trying to make are likely to find that annoying.
If you wait until after the first draft to figure out your theme, it will allow you to choose themes that already were sprouting naturally in your story. It will almost certainly take you more work to edit your novel so it fits those themes once you discover them, but you’re more likely to have written a story with characters, plots, and themes that feel authentic rather than contrived.
Then there is, of course, my favoured approach to theme: the middle ground. Choose a theme early on but be flexible with it. Be prepared to change a theme that is no longer working for you. Flirt with your chosen theme a little, maybe go on a few moonlit strolls, but don’t marry it until you know it’s compatible with you, respects your boundaries, and gives you the warm and fuzzies.
That’s all I’ve got for today! We still need to go over how to use theme. I’ve mentioned a few times that theme gives you a road map, so next time I’m going to show you how to use that road map to choose the right characters for your novel. In the meantime, go ahead and share this post if you thought this was helpful. If you’re on Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube, so am I! Feel free to follow me there. Links to all my social media are on this website. See you next time!