A theme is a unifying idea that is developed throughout a story. It differs from the subject of the story and is the subtle message or underlying issue you wish to convey to your reader, without seeming to ‘preach’.
It is common in stories for children is to have a moralistic theme.
Teenage and YA (Young Adult) books often have Romance, Friendship or Teenage Angst as the theme, although lately, Surviving Mental Health and Living with a Chronic Illness have also featured.
Chick Lit generally has Finding True Love as the theme
Other common themes are: space, relationships, power and control, friendship, adventure, conflict, betrayal…
Sometimes a theme reveals itself.
You don’t necessarily have to write with a theme in mind when start your first draft. Re-reading your story for the first time, may reveal its point (theme), if you didn’t write with one in mind. It could be something unexpected – a subconscious idea that you hadn’t managed to clarify, but somehow came out in your narrative (it happens!). Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.
Do not confuse Theme with Genre.
Genre is the commercial category your story fits within and often defines the style, length and to a degree, the language or writing style used.
A reader will often have a preference for a particular genre of book and will have certain expectations of it. If an author steps too far away from the expected norms of that genre – for example, if Paranormal Romance fails to have any spookiness to it, or if a Chick Lit novel doesn’t supply a happy ending, then many of its readers will be disappointed.
Some common genres are:
Action / Adventure
Satire / Dark humour
These are certainly not the only categories – there are loads more.
When you browse for a book on Amazon, you will see the genre categories listed on the left hand side of the screen (and sometimes across the top of the page).
There are categories and sub-categories of genre and the lists are extensive. Here is an example of the sub-categories under Crime, Thrillers & Mystery:
Action & Adventure
When you write a short story or a novel, it is worth being familiar with the genre you are planning to writing in – take a look at other books within that genre, even if you just look them up on Amazon and read the back cover (sometimes books will have a ‘Look inside’ feature which allows you to read the first few pages).
Theme and genre exercise
Think of some books you have recently read and see if you can work what their themes and genre are.
Harry Potter sits in the Fantasy genres. According to the author, one of its main themes is Death. Other themes prevalent throughout the series are; Good v Evil, Friendship and Love.
My novella, Crime and Cremation is in the Crime and Dark Humour genres. The theme is – How far can good morals stretch?
My teen novel, FREEN: The First Truth is in the YA and Science Fiction genres. The theme was – Do people really want to know the truth?
New genre exercise
We tend to stick with what we know, and indeed, the recommended advice is to write what you know BUT, if you don’t try writing in different, less comfortable genres, how will you ever know if they might suite you really well.
Read through the nine different genres below, then, take a deep breath and pick a genre; one that you have never tried before – perhaps one that really scares you, and write a 500 to 1500 word story in it. Try several, if you fancy it.
Note: Don’t forget to plot your story using the 5 finger pitch method from week 1.
Romanticised horror (or death or mystery) popularised in the Victorian era. Lots of skirting around the issue using flowery, overly-dramatic, romantic language set against a bleak and haunting backdrop. Lots of internal thoughts of monologues.
(The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole – 1764, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë – 1847, The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde – 1890, Dracula by Bram Stoker – 1897)
Hi-tech new worlds, new technology, new science, new structure and lots of terminology including new ways to travel. Can be set on earth or on another planet, or even in another dimension.
(1984 by George Orwell, Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Dune by Frank Herbert, Watchers by Dean Koontz)
Complex new world orders in fictional worlds – frequently medieval in style. Fantastical characters, usually in complex hierarchies. Often inspired by folk stories and myths. Magic or supernatural events. New ways of doing things.
(Harry Potter series by J.K Rowling, Game of Thrones by George R.R Martin, Moon Called by Patricia Briggs, Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell)
A story that builds on the reader’s sense of fear. Usually begins in a happy, normal place then builds to knife-edge suspense culminating in horrific events. Atmosphere and sense of emotional dread. Tense moments that amount to nothing and other people not believing there is anything untoward going on, although there is often a character who does know and gives hints or warns off the main character. Does not necessarily need to contain lots of blood, gore and death.
(Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Interview With the Vampire by Anne Rice, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, Pet Sematary by Stephen King, Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin)
Definition: Relating to or denoting an imagined state or society
where there is great suffering or injustice.
Complex story arcs, fear, impending doom and disbelief. Conspiracies abound. Either a world going into dystopia, or an already dystopian world with a bleak backdrop. Everything changes and survival is key; usually fighting against oppressive authority.
(Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Animal Farm by George Orwell)
Paranormal / Ghost stories
Often starts with everyday life, builds up slowly with little things that seem incidental until the characters begin to realise they are intentional – then building on that to create fear and tension, usually before slowly revealing the ghostly or paranormal cause. Set in a spooky abandoned building, a historical house or ancient site. Paranormal romance is a sub-genre of ghost stories which has become incredibly popular.
(Ghost Story by Peter Straub, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Amityville Horror by Jay Anson, Dark Matter, By Michelle Paver, The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins)
Begins with action and escalates to become something that must be escaped – a roller coaster of action, fear and tension culminating in an often violent resolution. The purpose of a thriller is to induce the strongest emotional responses possible.
(The ‘Jack Reacher’ series by Lee Child, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Widow by Fiona Barton, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, The Hunt for Red October of by Tom Clancy, A Time to Kill by John Grisham)
The scene is set and the mystery is introduced, ensued by a hunt for clues, with everything coming together and the odd ‘red herring’ (a fact, idea, or subject that takes people’s attention away from the central point being considered) thrown in to misdirect. A final build-up to the big reveal.
(The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle, The Firm, John Grisham)
Often detailed descriptions, dialogue is spattered with older language. Full of rich story-telling and ‘time-anchors’ to enable the reader to really understand the timings. Characters can be historical or fictional. Requires dedicated research by the author to ensure all details are correct for the set period.
(The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan, Caravans by James A. Michener, The Night Watch by Sarah Waters)
I would love to see your different genre stories, please do post them in the comments below.