This post, by Harvey Chapman, originally appeared on Novel-Writing-Help.com.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition, theme is "the subject of a piece of writing." Now, that might be factually correct (who am I to argue with the dictionary people?), but I still don’t believe it is helpful to anyone just starting out in novel writing who is trying to work out what theme actually is.
The "subject of a piece of writing" suggests "subject matter" – and, for me, a novel’s subject matter is something concrete and definite. So the subject matter of a horror novel, for example, might be vampires and spooky castles.
A literary theme, on the other hand, is not concrete at all. It can usually be summed up by a phrase like "grief" or "unrequited love" or "blind faith" – something intangible like that.
So let’s start again…
What is theme? According to my own definition, the theme of a novel is simply what a novel "means."
I think I have stated elsewhere on this site that a novel’s theme is what it is "about." Thinking about it, though, that sounds dangerously like "subject matter" again, which is why I am defining theme here as what the events of a novel "mean."
A love story, for example, is "about" two people meeting and falling in love. In other words, it is about…
- The characters
- The plot (or what the characters do)
- The setting (or where they do it)
…and these things are all on the novel’s surface. In fact, they are the novel’s subject matter.
The theme of a novel, however – or the meaning of a novel – happens beneath the surface, and it is essentially the lesson that the surface story teaches us, or the conclusion that can be drawn from the events.
If all of this is sounding kind of vague, that’s because theme in writing is kind of vague. But we are slowly edging closer to a more concrete definition…
The theme of a novel is the deeper layer of meaning running beneath the story’s surface.