Many writers write with a purpose. We all have something to say, and we all, at one point or another, struggle with how to say it. Incorporating themes into our narratives can be one of the most challenging pieces to get right simply because of the amount of finesse it takes to do it properly. It is a balancing act between the covert and overt. You can't be so obvious that the reader goes "ah ha!" when reading, but also not so subtle that they miss the point completely. You also can't write a novel without some underlying message. Readers, especially those who prefer fiction, need to be engaged on a deeper level in order to continue reading.
Without an underlying meaning the purpose of storytelling doesn't exist. Even in the cheesiest comedy lies some sort of commentary on life as we know it. Readers want to gain a glimpse into the perspective of someone else, to escape their own lives for a moment, and to be entertained. They want to be presented with new ideas, but don't want to feel as though they are being pushed to change their own views. They crave insight within the framework of a safe structure.
The easiest way to fulfill your audience's wishes is to use your characters. By creating characters who are compelling, detailed, and different, you pull the focus of your readers into the story and grant them a deeper understanding of their world. Whatever beliefs the character holds will also become your reader's beliefs for the duration of the novel.
Think about your novel as though it were a living being. The plotline is its backbone, the support structure. The theme is its spirit, what animates it. How you choose to utilize your theme determines how your story handles its "life" so to speak. It all starts with finding out what you want your story to say.
Everyone has opinions. As a novelist, this is even more true. If you're struggling to find your message, you need to take a step back and ask yourself some hard questions. What bothers you in this world? What unsettles you? Makes you angry? Sad? Afraid? What do you think is unfair? Unjust? What would you change? By identifying your deepest thoughts, you can then channel them into your work.
If you find that you have opinions that are lukewarm, your problem may not lie in identifying them, but in a lack of artistic passion. This is understandable. It's not easy to express such strong viewpoints, even on paper. Given that the postmodern world we live in is governed by political correctness it becomes even more difficult. We may fear backlash, or be concerned about offending someone. Or we may just be used to being neutral, the result of listening and compromising on viewpoints while sitting through endless meetings.
Whatever the case may be, we can all agree that people who choose to make a stand are admirable. This is true even with fiction. We like the protagonists who fight for justice, who do the right thing, those who stand up for those who can't defend themselves, and ultimately save the day. In order to write heroes, writers need to find their courage too. Write what you feel the world needs to hear. You must believe in your work and the message you're trying to convey.
When you think of theme, it's not uncommon to relate it to the "cherry" on top of a cake. Most view it as something that completes a novel rather than something that needs to be baked into it from the start. This is not the case. In order for it to work, it has to be consistently integrated throughout your novel, which means that it needs to be planned out before the real writing ever begins.
One way to approach planning your theme is to look at how it influences individual scenes as opposed to the big picture. Sometimes when we try to focus on the full-scale of our work our tone becomes preachy, the theme obvious. The best way to avoid this is to analyze each chapter to make sure your character's decisions fall in line with their moral values. To start, identify what is occurring in the chapter. It's either going to be that your protagonist is experiencing a problem or they are trying to cope with complications brought on by said conflict. Once you know what's going on, ask yourself why your character is in that situation. What motivates them to be there?
Make a list of all the possible motivations. You'll find that basic survival needs sit at the top of the list followed closely by emotional needs. Further down would be things like: information, support, avoidance, comfort, curiosity, etc. Last but not least are the higher callings, such as the search for truth, the fight for justice, a need to hope, and a yearning for love.
Now flip the list. Your higher values will now sit at the top, making the entire list of motivations feel a lot more intense. This is because passion takes priority over all else, even basic needs. Your protagonist would rather starve than live without accomplishing their goal. Instantly the stakes are more urgent and the tension runs higher. By using this method to enhance your motivations you elevate the overall theme within your story.
Creating the line between good and bad is an essential act. You have to be expressly clear about where the line exists so that readers understand where your protagonist stands. Oftentimes the lines in fiction reinforce what we believe and adhere to in real life. Readers want to be reassured that their actions are the right ones. One of the best parts of fiction is that it reflects moments where taking a stand is vital, whereas in contrast real life rarely gives us such opportunities.
The best way to convey your message to your readers is by demonstrating it through the actions of your characters. Don't have your characters monologue about the importance of saving people and being good. Have them show us by actually saving someone. On the other hand, have your villain do bad things big and small. Don't tell us what they are going to do. Show us the aftermath of their evil choices. For those whose characters lie in the middle ground, play with equal parts good and bad. Fluctuate their deeds and include the torment that comes from being an anti-hero. Just be aware of what lines your anti-hero won't cross and make sure that your readers know why. Then put them to the test.
Put your characters inside a situation with inescapable moral choices and dilemmas. Make them choose between their values and what they want most. Make them do terrible things to protect the ones they love. Make them make choices that they can never take back. Choose a situation that directly challenges the theme of your story. If they value love most, make them decide between their family member and their lover. If they seek justice for murder, turn them into a murder. The purpose of drawing the line from the start will guarantee that your protagonist (and your readers) will feel the joys and pains of these victories/conflicts intensely.
Once you've found your message, built your theme, and added your moral conflict, it's time to choose a universal theme. A message that is well-built and given the emotional "oomph" of moral conflict is in good shape, but in order to make it a memorable lesson, you have to tie it back to what really matters. That's the universal theme. Beyond that, you need to find a way to make your universal theme specific. It must be so deeply rooted within your story that it is impossible to have your story without it.
For example, "love conquers all" is a universal theme. Every romance novel or romantic trope centers around this concept, but very few novels actually make it memorable. Sure, all couples belong together. But very few succeed in having a high impact. This is because the authors have failed to convince us of the strength of their love. A truly successful romance novel leaves us without any doubt that the characters will do or risk anything for the sake of their hearts. You know you've done it right when your readers are crying and smiling alongside your characters.
Another example is mystery novels. Those typically have a "justice prevails" theme. We know that good must triumph over evil, but how often do we feel fearful and anxious of the consequences of evil winning? Not often. Again, this is due to the lack of convincing commitment to the universal theme. Done right, both the protagonist and the antagonist's viewpoints should be compelling and magnetic. We should feel the stakes and fear the consequences from the first few pages. If not, we need to return to the drafting board.
You may be wondering if it's possible to use an unpopular theme and still make a story readers will be hard-pressed to abandon. The answer is yes! But you have to do it right. Because the theme is unfavorable you'll have to work even harder to keep your reader's captivated. The good news is that you can do that the same way you would with a more popular theme- through your protagonist. We don't have to agree with them, but if they are fired up about their beliefs, we will be too.
Using your theme to enhance your novel's overall power is a great idea. You can do this by being clear about what your message is, working through each scene to make sure your protagonist's actions are consistent with your theme, challenging them with moral dilemmas, and weaving everything into a specific universal theme. If you follow these steps, you'll have a compelling, spellbinding tale sure to please crowds for generations to come.