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The Message at the Center of the Novel
There's a trite old saying in the world of writing that goes something like this: "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." The intended import of this old adage is that a writer should focus on essentials like plot and characterization rather than upon social or political messages. To an extent, I as a writer agree with this philosophy and consider it sound advice, though masterful exceptions like The Grapes of Wrath abound. As a general rule, it is indeed unwise for a writer, particularly for a writer new and lacking in self-confidence enough to seek out and take this kind of advice, to try and politicize or socialize their work. At best, such a work alienates whole segments of the population of readers and book-buyers, and at worst a heavy sociopolitical overtone can destroy a novel from within.
However, this does not mean that your novel should lack a theme.
Theme is to a novel what a soul is to humanity; it is the heart and spirit and essence of a novel. Without theme, a novel is merely a series of events that may or may not entertain, but which will certainly never be memorable or "important". It is the hidden emotional message that guides and structures your work and renders it emotionally coherent. It is the hard, pure core around which everything else must be built.
Despite its huge importance in literature, theme is a very difficult thing to define. A quick perusal of various literary websites indicates that individuals with far more advanced educations than my own also have trouble communicating what should be a fairly simple concept. Since this column is generally about writing and written for writers, I'll stick my neck out and state that, for our purposes, theme can be defined as the mission statement of a novel, as the "something" which we as artists are trying to say.
When I first began writing, I didn't think about theme consciously, yet without doubt I instinctively included it as something that was clearly essential to the success of my work. Transmutation Now!, my first "serious" work, very definitely has a central theme, one that evolved naturally through the writing of the piece. As I got further and further along, it became harder and harder to know what to write next. TN! just sort of grew through the first three parts; I didn't do any plot planning at all until beginning part four, almost halfway through, and even then I was very vague as to how the work would end. Yet, subconsciously, I adhered very tightly to a theme, which was that change and acceptance of change brings about personal growth and empowerment. Because this theme was first and foremost in my mind, the novel "works" (or at least I think that it works) even though the plot is far from straightforward. Because each and every part shares a common and powerful theme, the work is coherent and whole. It reads in a consistent voice, and (admittedly subconsciously) I built and built and built on my theme, until at the end Jack Strafford has so grown in stature that he helps to create God in his own image. Because the theme is consistent throughout, this totally unplanned ending fits as well as if that was where I'd been consciously aiming all along.
(And I admit it; I got lucky.)
Robert Heinlein was a skilled theme-builder in his finer works as well. The theme of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is that freedom can triumph over anything and is well worth sacrificing for. Orphans of the Sky is about what happens when a society deliberately closes its mind to the truth. Double Star deals with the nature of who we as humans are and what distinguishes us one from another. Indeed, in my opinion Heinlein's powerful and masterful use of theme is a big part of what sets him apart from so many other less successful SF writers, who are often far more interested in dazzling us with new tech rather than answering deeply and essentially human questions. Only a handful of others, in my mind most notably Sir Arthur C. Clarke, can equal or exceed Heinlein in this arena. His short story The Star, for example, is a masterpiece about the eternal conflict between science and faith. An aspiring SF writer could do far, far worse than to read everything Clarke or Heinlein ever wrote as a way to study the use of theme in SF/F. (And, I'll note in passing, an aspiring writer can learn as much or more from the failures of these two masters as from their successes.)
I've thought a lot about theme in fiction over the past few years, mostly as a result of trying to figure out why some of my novels are more satisfactory to me than are others. I've come to believe that theme is the answer. Where the theme is strong and emotionally powerful and well carried through, I end up with a novel that I am happy with. Where I've failed to follow my heart and instead have wavered in my path, the result is far weaker. Theme, I have come to believe, is the absolutely essential centerpiece of a strong novel and very often (though not always) the heart of shorter pieces as well. It is the central underlying truth that underpins our made-up worlds, the hub around which all else must spin and to which all other story-stuff must take a back seat. Of late, when I've felt lost in a tale I've sat and asked myself out loud "Is so-and-so a character consistent with my theme?" Or, "How does this scene relate to my theme? How does this sequence of events advance what I am trying to do?" While I must say that this has made my writing far more difficult, these questions have "kept me honest" as a writer. I believe they are what make me able to think of myself as an artist rather than as a hack.
Stephen King once said that above all else, writers owe readers the essential truth of their works. I would submit to you that this "truth" he spoke of is what is more commonly known as "theme", and that delivering a theme is indeed the very highest calling and duty of a writer. Theme is what separates the wheat from the chaff, or so I most truly believe.
Theme is power, and theme is art. Theme is beauty and impact. Theme is the heart of your work, the window through which the writer inserts his soul. And, if you want to know the warm, happy glow of the successful writer, if you want to know that you have reached out and shaped the god-stuff of which the universe is made in your fiction, then you will study theme and learn to use it both wisely and proficiently.
Theme is the signature of the true craftsman.