The Tao Of Theme

This post is going to be a strange post. Why?

Theme is strange.

We all lust after it in the hopes that maybe one day our book will be the ones that intelligent rich people snob over at their literary parties and forcibly assign to college kids for overinflated bookstore prices while we recline on huge piles of money. But it’s more elusive than an eight-legged unicorn.

There’s only word I can use to explain theme.

Wuwei. Which basically is ‘doing nothing’ or ‘inaction’. And through this doing nothing everything gets done. This might sound bizarre, but stay with me.

The reason why I bring this up is because…

If you’re going through your draft and trying to plan places to put theme in, you’re doing it wrong.

I can say from experience that theme tends to be one of the last things that develops in your book. And it doesn’t necessarily happen in a first or second draft. In some cases, the theme will actually change as you write more drafts.

In the first draft of my novel, I was so sure that my theme had something to do with balance, harmony, and yin and yang. But then in another draft, I was sure that it had something to do with being compassionate to others. But in the final draft I’m writing, the switch flipped again, and now it seems to be something along the lines of “The only difference between killing a person with a weapon and killing them with change is where the bullet wound is.”

So though you maybe want to try and impress the literary crowd, don’t go rooting for theme too early.

Don’t even think about it until your theme until you’ve been through a round of corrections and filled in the missing plot holes. Believe me, the additional and deleted scenes make a world of a difference in finding your theme.

And since we’re on that note…

Motifs and Symbols Are Not Theme

Resist the urge to say black equals purity and sprinkle black-wearing virgins everywhere. That is blatantly trying to smack the reader upside the head with meaning. And smacking a reader upside the head usually never ends well.

Just because you use a motif in a situation does not give it any significance. Just like how merely assigning characters items and special ticks doesn’t make them unique. It has to be come naturally from within.

And this is why I say theme is strange. The line between a genuine motif and symbol and one that’s thrown in willy-nilly is very easy to see, but very hard to make a call on what makes it feel that way and how to correct it.

The most accurate word I’ve got so far is that the latter simply feels unauthentic or contrived. I swear I’ll find a better way to explain this in more detail, but for now this is what I’ve got.

Motifs and symbols need consistency, unity, and focus. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you all have to pull from the same family of items like boat, sailing, ocean, tides. You can have boat, buzzsaw, unicorn, or whatever you want.

But the catch is that every motif and symbol must converge toward a single statement about life, humanity, and all that jazz. It’s like a team of people rowing a boat (sorry, boats are all I can think of right now), if most of your teammates are rowing one way and Joe Shmoe is rowing the wrong way, then it undermines your effort and Mr. Shmoe won’t be getting any oreos at the bonfire. In fact, he will probably be kicked from the team.

Don’t Worry If You Can’t Find One

You do more damage to a book by forcing a message where it needs none. But also, most people who read a novel, won’t bat an eyelash if your book didn’t seem to have a theme. But they will maul faces if you didn’t tell them a good story.

And if you’ve written a good story, a theme is probably there anyway. 😉



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