I admit—I was never very good at analyzing themes in high school English class. I just wanted to enjoy the story, not go digging for themes and presume I understood what the author meant to convey. Even now, I believe that story comes first. Write a good story first and foremost . . . but if you can work in some powerful themes, even better.
Themes can be tricky. Go overboard and you’ll come off as preachy. But without any themes at all, the story is just fluff. How do you know if you’ve nailed the themes? Your editors and test readers will tell you.
Why are you writing this story? What message are you hoping to get across? Remember that people read for connections, to FEEL something. If your themes resonate with readers and stay with them after they finish reading, you’ve done your job.
Four things to keep in mind regarding themes (with Harry Potter examples):
Use symbols and metaphors to convey themes. This works on two levels: author level and character level. The author will choose appropriate symbols throughout the book. For example, a snake is a common symbol of evil, and talking to snakes is a common trait of Slytherins (even the name Slytherin sounds evil). Character-level choices are seen in actions and dialogue. For example, Hermione is always referring to things she’s read about in books. You won’t ever hear Harry or Ron talking the way Hermione does. This is just one aspect of Rowling’s character development, and it serves the double purpose of labeling Hermione as “the smart one.”
Raise theme from different angles and POVs. Some common themes in stories include friendship, family, love, and home. Themes become deeper when you find different ways to explore them. We can compare Harry’s miserable home life with the Dursleys to the way he misses his parents but finds friendship at his real “home”—Hogwarts. Or we can compare Harry to Hermione, who also grew up in a Muggle home but with loving parents. Compare both of them to Ron, who has a big magical family with little money but lots of love. All these connections and comparisons are like a web that makes the story stronger.
Show theme through plot, not in a preachy way. The four Hogwarts houses represent courage, loyalty, wisdom, and ambition. But you won’t find Rowling’s characters preaching on about this. Over time they just prove—through their choices and actions—how they fit in well with their appointed house.
Reinforce themes on all levels. By levels, I mean physical, mental, emotional, and maybe even spiritual (not always explored in every story). A good example of this is seen in the fifth Harry Potter book, The Order of the Phoenix, the darkest of the HP books in my opinion. As Harry’s connection to Voldemort grows, it starts to take a toll on Harry. He’s tired, grouchy, and stretched too thin. And though the book is sometimes dark and maybe even depressing, it strongly conveys the torment Harry is going through.
I think I’ll be learning about themes for the rest of my life. Which is good—every author needs to keep discovering and growing forever.
How do you feel about themes??
Come back next week for the fifth building block!