I think it would be an understatement to say that writers read a great deal. Reading provides me with hours of adventure, inspiration…and procrastination.
But it’s the most useful form of procrastination!
When I read a book that resonates with me – one that prevents me from putting the book down and causes me to gush about it to my friends – I know I’ve hit on a book with strong themes. Why?
Because strong themes make your writing relatable. Like a good character, a good theme will make your reader think and cry. They’ll read your book over and over again.
A book without a clear theme can derail itself with an unclear focus. These are the books that cause readers whiplash, and prevent them from falling in love with your book.
But a clear theme can catch your reader’s attention and hold them until the end. A strong theme can help your reader feel what your characters feel. A consistent theme acts as the river that pushes your reader along in the story. They arrive at the end of your story without feeling lost or confused.
Needless to say, themes are important for you and your readers.
Common Themes in Different Genres
Regardless of what genre you read the most, you’ll find some common ones in every genre. Certain genres can lend themselves to certain themes, which is why they can be more common. This isn’t a bad thing. These typical themes can be the jumping off point for other, deeper themes. They can also be what draws your reader to your book in the first place.
For example, there are two common themes in Young Adult literature: coming of age and first love. Both are important milestones for everyone. For most people, your first love and your “coming of age” period happen when you are in your teens. For a girl longing for her first love, or a young boy wanting to become a man, these themes resonate because of their relatability. These readers see a story that could represent them. They feel an affinity for the characters going through a similar situation.
Another example of a theme common to a certain genre: ethics in sci-fi. Is there a better way to ask the tough moral questions than by sticking some characters in a foreign land with foreign people and foreign technology, just to see what happens? Like every dystopian book on the market, there are two sides to every story. What seems like a protective, perfect paradise for some is, in fact, a torture prison for others.
Now, any story can have a variety of themes, even while one theme stands above the others. A well-written book will reach into many themes to pull at its readers in a variety of ways.
One of my favorite examples of a series that exhibits a variety of themes is the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling used a variety of characters and situations to speak to issues within our own society.
The most prevalent theme is racism. Rowling illustrates this through her character’s experiences with the disputes over purity of blood. This dispute colors the main villain in the stories (Lord Voldemort) and the actions of many other characters.
Another example of racism and inequality (illustrated in the books, not the movies) is the plight of house elves and their treatment from wizards. Hermione acts as our guide in showing us the abuse and disregard of the house elves throughout the books.
While the theme of inequality and racism is the most prevalent in the Harry Potter books, you also encounter the strength of love (through Lily Potter, Severus Snape, Harry’s friendship with Ron and Hermione), social outcasts (in the form of Lupin as a werewolf and Tonks trials as his wife), and the price of fame (Harry as an outcast when the Chamber of Secrets is opened, Harry in the Triwizard Tournament, Harry…existing).
Where To Find Strong Themes
So of course, the next question to ask is where to find strong themes that resonate with your readers and keep them coming back for more.
This is a surprisingly simple answer, with a hard follow through.
One cliche piece of advice every writer receives is to write what you know. I’ll wait while you roll your eyes…
But here’s the thing: your story’s theme won’t be strong, won’t resonate, unless you can write it truthfully.
Meaning your story’s theme should be one of your own life’s themes.
And before you cringe about having to write the complications of your life into a story, stay with me. Writers are pros at empathy and understanding situations we’ve never encountered. But we’re also pros at mastering an understanding of the situations we have encountered.
If you’re writing a story about a woman who loses her spouse, who better to write about the experience and the journey than a woman who has actually lost her spouse? If you’re writing about falling in love at first glance, who better to do so than someone who has experienced it? If you’ve experience racism, sexism, or other cruelties, who better to write about racism, sexism, and other cruelties?
So yes, writing what you know is a cliche, annoying piece of advice. But writing what you know will create the stories that will keep your readers coming back to your books, over and over again. Your understanding, your empathy, your clear-headedness about an issue or situation will mark the difference between a good author and a great author
It’s so hard. But it’s also worth it.
When To Decide On Your Story’s Theme
Your story may in time present its own theme to you as you write along. With other stories, you might start with a theme in mind.
Either course is just fine. Both produce equally good writing.
Your story’s theme may not be apparent to your reader right away and that’s ok. Their journey through your work will float along the themes you’ve woven throughout your story, whether they realize it or not. But they will be the force that connects with your readers and creates lifelong fans for the rest of your work. Your themes are important, and without them, your readers will leave your writing behind.
We don’t want that. So let yourself write what you know, even if it hurts. Your writing will win in the end.