Monday, January 28, 2013

The Ever Elusive Theme

 Why do we read? I ask this question to my 8th graders at the beginning of every year. The answers always vary from person to person, and from year to year. But essentially, the following are always the reasons given:

·         Because I like living through another person’s eyes

·         Because it’s fun

·         It helps you learn vocabulary

·         It teaches you about the world

·         It lets you see other cultures

·         It’s like a movie in your head

·         Because it takes me out of my life for as long as I need it

·         It makes me a better writer

·         It teaches you about life

I want to take a moment to talk about that last one. Life. There certainly many things to learn about it. Every day I am learning about how to deal with the twists and turns it deals. And even at this point, when I feel like I should pretty much have a handle on things, something happens and I find myself saying, “What the heck?” “What am I supposed to DO with this?”

Life. The commercials stated we could be a winner at the game of Life. I’m still waiting. And my car is getting emptier, not fuller. Those who’ve played the game, totally know what I’m talking about. But why are you talking board games, Carey? What in the world does this have to do with why we read?

Because for me, and really for most people, I think why we read is because at the deepest level, we want to know that we’re not alone. And that there is hope. Because if some klutzy, normal, boring looking girl can snag a hot, sparkly vampire, then there is hope for us. If some boy who lives in a closet under the stairs can become a wizard that saves all of us muggles from the perils of the dark forces, then we, too, can overcome our obstacles, however brooding they may seem. At the heart of all books, all narratives really, be they memoirs or fiction, is the story of us. The human experience.

And we want, no we NEED to know that we are not alone in this. And that others have been there or have it far worse. Not to mention that these themes span across not only continents, but centuries. It is refreshing to know that while we pine and weep over love lost or the one that got away, or the one we hope is THE ONE, Jane Austen was feeling that same way. As was Fitzgerald. As was Shakespeare.

So, when writing it is important to keep your story, your characters, your scenes in check. But don’t forget the theme. It’s why your writing matters. It’s the whole point. If yours has no point, then why would we want to read it? How am I, as a reader, going to connect to it if there is nothing worth connecting to?

At the end of reading your novel, readers should be able to sit down and analyze character choices, and how what they decided led to the final outcome. But to really dig in, past the skin into the meat, the sinewy goodness that makes your novel satisfying to bite on, we need to know why those choices matter. And how those choices relate to our decisions.

So when teaching my students theme (which is HARD to do by the way), I ask them this:

What does the reader learn about life?

What does the reader learn about the world?

What does the reader learn about themselves or others?

These are the themes. If your novel does not answer one of these, you may be missing something.

Another good checkpoint. Ask yourself the following of your novel:

Who? (main character)

Wants What? (motivation)

But? (what gets in the way?)

So? (what do they have to do to solve the problem?)

Then? (what is the falling action, consequence, resolution?)

This teaches that? (THEME)

This should ensure that a) you have a solid plot and b)your novel has a theme.

I have compiled my own list of the most universal themes I have seen in my years of teaching and reading. Some are trite. Some are cliché. But you gotta start somewhere. See if any of these would work for yours.

·         Love conquers all.

·         Friendship means truly being there for another.

·         There is more to people than appearances.

·         Ugliness comes from actions, not looks.

·         Love makes us do crazy things.

·         Love is worth sacrifice.

·         Through adversity, we learn who we are.

·         Death is a part of life.

·         You can’t have friends if you don’t act like a friend.

·         You should always stand up for yourself.

·         Nothing worth having is ever easy.

·         All actions have consequences.

·         You have to find your own happiness.

·         Don’t be afraid to try new things.

·         Believe in yourself.

·         Be happy with what you have.

·         Courage is doing what’s right, even when it’s hard.

·         Love can be shown in many different ways.

·         Jealousy will destroy.

·         Appreciate what you already have.

·         Don’t give up on your dreams.

·         Sometimes what you’re searching for is in your own backyard.

·         The only one you can rely on is yourself.

·         Growing up means giving up on fantasy.

·         Your identity lies within yourself, not anyone else.

·         Sometimes everyone feels out of place.

·         Freedom is gained by imagination.

·         With determination, one could accomplish anything.

·         Sometimes we are the strongest when we remain quiet.

·         Accept that things change.

·         Most people have an inner strength, only not all use it.

·         Don’t let anyone hold you back from what you want.

·         Love can be shown in many different ways.

·         No one is stronger than nature.

·         Identity is determined by society.

·         Enjoy life now, because we all die soon.

·         By the time we understand life, there is too little left to live.

·         Live in the present.

·         Family comes first.

·         Family is who you love, not who you are related to.

·         In life, there must be balance.

·         To be mature, you must be responsible.

·         The choices you make determine the person you are.

·         Finish what you started.

·         Not everything is what it seems

·         Reliance on technology makes us lazy.

·         With age comes wisdom.

·         Having “things” won’t make you happy.

·         Whatever has been done, cannot be undone.

This list is not by any means all there is. This is just my list I have used. If you have any others to share, please post in comments! J thanks! And carpe diem.



  1. Way to make me nostalgic for all my high school English classes! Back then (and still now) I was a sucker for any coming-of-age story. I know, I know, that can apply to so many things. But to me, that's one of the most universal themes -- because I do feel like it can apply to everyone.

  2. I think this advice is in line with the advice to realize what your reoccurring theme is in your stories. I heard an author once say that once you realize the greater story you've been telling within every novel you write, you'll be a better writer. :) Oh, and the Tigger picture made me laugh out loud.

  3. It's always a good thing to be aware of, even if some of the themes we write into our stories might not have been intentional from the start. Sometimes we can be surprised by the depth our characters bring out.

    Here's a few themes I've seen in my own novel:

    -What is destructive for one person can be a blessing to another (such as your family)
    -What one views as a gift that makes her special, another can view as a curse that damns her
    -Life and Death are intertwined
    -Sometimes there are things that are beyond your control

    I'm sure there are others, but those are the first that come to mind.

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  5. What an awesome post, Carey! Yet again you've taught me something valuable -- well done :0)


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