I imagine that most of us at some point have either said or heard, “oh, that’s the story of my life.” It’s the standard line we run to when one of those familiarly annoying occurrences ruin our day. Let’s think of an example. You missed the start of the movie because you were late. In fact, you are always late because your husband always realises on the way to the cinema that you have to stop for petrol. And money. You miss the beginning of the film like you always do because of it. You smile apologetically at the strangers as they are forced to stand up to let you pass as you take your seats, and smile sarcastically at the husband who seemingly has no shame or realisation of how much he has annoyed you.
This is fortunately not the story of my life. Instead it is the story of my fiancee's life, who invariably is late for anything that we are due to attend together because I have left the car with no petrol and therefore have to stop at the garage. I will also need to ‘pop to the bank’ on the way. Which of course, isn’t really on the way at all.
But if I were to write the story of his life in this way, I would not detail every late appearance or every missed movie. These details would make for a very she said he said story. Instead, I would write generally about how he constantly reminds me to please fill up the car, and how it always seems I ran out of time. We would explore why I am always late, and get the opinion of a few others who have suffered because of it. Lateness, would be my theme.
As writers our work is a tapestry of many elements, ideas, layers, which all combine to produce the overall finished piece. We create characters and plot, decide on a setting and package it up with our hopefully unique and inspiring voice to tell the story. As we tell our story, we hope that the characters and their actions reveal a central message. A lasting thought. Superficially we might at the end of a book or a film describe a character in simple terms, a quick nod to the story. “That Joe character, I can’t believe he did that after everything he went through,” but we might actually be making reference to the moral of the story, the message. This is the theme cropping up again.
In my writing, I do not conciously pre determine my theme, making sure that as I step through the chapters I graffiti my theme all over them. At least not in the first draft. I come up with an idea, a concept. A what if…..With this one concept in mind I begin the first draft, meet my characters and find a resolution to the story that develops. Once this first draft is finished I take a step back and work through from beginning to end and determine how I answered that original concept. Identity X began with a thought about the ability to cure genetic disease. Not just one or two diseases, but a scientist who had worked so tirelessly that he had managed to formulate a single serum that could reconstruct DNA. What if you could cure all genetic disease with a single injection?
When I met my protagonist I asked myself what drove him forward. Why was he prepared to sacrifice his home life? Did he really not care if he lost his wife? Why did his work matter so much? From these early questions spawned a whole manuscript, and as I looked back though I found themes running throughout the story. I found that I ended up asking myself how individuals and families deal with disease, and how such diseases can tear families apart. I also found myself asking why people hold on to pain from the past, seeking nothing but vengeance and how that destroys not only the present but the future too. These were not my original thoughts, but they were easy to identity after the first draft and became the key to the story. Then, when I approached my second draft I could develop these concepts and improve the original manuscript.
For me, a novel without theme is like a walk through a tunnel in the mountain, all concrete and straight to the point. Character A did this and went there and decided that. The End. Pretty boring, eh? The journey I really want to take is the one that takes me up and over the mountain, that tests my strength and pushes my limits. Over the mountain my walk will be enriched by the sky and scenery, and unexpected turns in the path. I might meet somebody else along the way who warns me of danger and completely changes my path forward. On this journey I will learn something about myself and those with me. It will make me think of previous journeys and how they compare. It will make me ask questions and the theme of my journey will develop quite organically.
This kind of depth in a novel adds a layer of poignancy that your readers will be able to delve into. Theme is often merely inferred, and this leads readers to find their own meanings in the text too, and draw their own conclusions. They will weave in and out of the layers, developing their own contrary viewpoint. When a reader speaks to you about a theme that they found on the journey through your book that you had never even considered, you know you did a good job. This kind of depth helps give a novel a meaning beyond simple entertainment and provides it with a place in society, and it could just be that very thing that your agent or publisher is looking for.