Brain Break (English Class)

Theme: Four Little Words, One Big Deal

Choosing a theme for your work is often the first step of the process
Photo by Vidal Balielo Jr. from Pexels

What’s the one question writers dread the most? (Okay, maybe the second worst question. “Is your book finished? is probably the worst) “What’s your book about?” As soon as someone discovers you’re a writer and working on more than a few random scribblings, they HAVE to know what the pages of your magnum opus contain. Which puts you on the spot to deliver an entertaining answer. That you usually don’t have. Because your brain short circuits attempting to cobble together something that includes your elevator pitch, synopsis, and character bios. And comes out sounding like – well, a desperate cry for help. When, in reality, all you need to do for the average person (who isn’t dangling a potential publishing contract) is deliver the theme. Four quick words delivered in your most enticing voice possible. (Eyebrow wiggles optional)

Unhappily, it’s a skill to master knowing what your theme actually IS.

Theme and Synopsis and Pitch – Oh, My!

Once you get serious about writing, you get hit with a lot of publishing terms. And they all sound similar. But each one serves a different function depending on who you’re talking to.

  • Pitch: Your pitch, sometimes known as an elevator pitch or hook, is a 1-2 sentence summary of your entire book. It distills everything important into a couple of breaths. But it’s catchy and designed to spark interest – generally in an editor or agent. The idea is you can spit it out during a quick elevator ride.
  • Synopsis: With few exceptions, the bane of every writer’s existence. The synopsis accompanies your sample chapters once you start submitting your COMPLETED novel. (Please note the emphasis there) It provides concise documentation of the primary events in about 4-10 pages. And it’s dry as hell. You’re not trying to entertain anyway, simply demonstrate that you can connect the dots.
  • Theme: A theme is one sentence, consisting of four words (okay, it CAN be more, but four’s a nice round number), that describes the central message of your novel. Exciting? Depends on your topic, I suppose. But it DOES encourage interest and for people to want to know more. And it falls into this format: “My book is about (blank).”

All three provide information on your writing, but they attack it from different angles. And you need to know when it’s appropriate to trot each one out. (Do NOT make a poor editor at a social function sit through your synopsis)

For the most part, for those random people who decide they NEED to know what your book is about, the pitch or theme is all they need. It will pique their curiosity without sucking you into a two-hour discussion.

And it just might score you a future reader.

Finding Your Theme

Themes aren’t as easy as they sound. Odds are what you THINK you’re writing and what you’re actually writing are two different concepts entirely. So taking the time to sit down and work through that messaging is worth it.

Start by asking yourself “WHY am I writing this?” (Because I want to is not an acceptable answer – although I see you and recognize that motivation)

  • Are you trying to say something about civilization? Society? Your personal growth story?
  • Do you hate the color orange? Are you fed up with pulling weeds? Did you never get a specific present from Santa Claus as a child? (Books have been written with pettier themes)
  • Your characters have motivations that come from SOMEWHERE. What’s driving them?
  • Why are the rules of your world built the way they are?

Even if it was unconscious when you started (“Hello” to my fellow pantsers and plansters), SOMETHING in the back of your mind had a driving momentum. And you have those notes jotted down somewhere. Review them and find the answer to WHY.

That’s your theme.

Examples to Guide Your Brain

You don’t have to stretch your brain too far. Remember, themes can be summed up in a few words. (So if your answer to “Why” is turning into a dissertation, you’ve gone too far) We’re talking BASIC concepts here: love, sacrifice, death, fear, family, etc.

If you’re struggling, look at published books to see their themes:

  • The Harry Potter series: Death
  • The Chronicles of Narnia series: Good versus Evil
  • The Hunger Games trilogy: Sacrifice
  • 1984: Loyalty
  • Life of Pi: Storytelling
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Friendship
  • The Fault in Our Stars: Suffering

Obviously, WAY MORE happens in each of these books. But when you peel away all of the plot, characters, and worldbuilding, these are the underlying messages that remain. The words that go into that blank of “This book is about.”

Why the Theme Matters

Do you NEED that four-word statement to start writing? (I know, it sounds an awful lot like planning, and people who write by the seat of their pants DON’T do that)

But, yeah, you do.

First, it’s ONE sentence. And a short one at that. So I’m not asking you to do THAT much work to put it down in your notes somewhere.

Second, it’s going to help you stay on track when you’re writing. Because it’s funny how often those four little words will get you out of plot holes and word jams. Knowing the WHY behind your work allows you to remember the reason you’re moving all of those characters around on the fictional game board. And it’ll save you from accidentally breaking a world rule or character trait.

If your theme is family, you can’t have your main character break off from the group and decide to go rogue halfway through the book. Or if you’ve chosen to write about love, you can’t have everyone at each other’s throats until the last chapter. Your reader isn’t going to stick with you that long.

This is your check to stay on task and remain true to the story.

Think of it as a safety valve – before you hand it over to an editor who’s going to mark it up and tell you that your plot isn’t consistent.

What Am I Writing Again?

I never bothered with writing down themes when I started writing. I couldn’t have told you what I thought that central message was if you asked. All I was doing was simply writing an enjoyable story. (Actually, if you pressed me, I would have told you that speculative fiction didn’t HAVE themes)

And everything I wrote meandered around, lost to the whims of my characters – who had no real focus or motivations. Maybe it was entertaining. But it wasn’t the best writing I’ve cobbled together.

I had to take the time to sit down and realize what I was actually trying to say to iron out all of the problems. WHY was I so intent on writing that book? What about that story refused to go away?

Suddenly, those core messages started coming through:

  • The Obsidian Mirror trilogy is about mental health.
  • The MindWalker series is about parental expectations.
  • Lethe is about pain.
  • My currently unnamed book based on The Nutcracker (admittedly still in processing) is about truth.

Having those statements printed at the top of my story bibles?

Yeah, amazing how much easier the writing flows.

So if you don’t know your themes yet, take the time to sit down and puzzle them out. You – and your characters – will thank you.

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