In this section, you will find out the importance of theme, how the theme can be simplex or complex and why this is important to your book. You’ll also discover a list of both simple and complex themes. On completion you’ll be able to identify the themes of any book you edit.

Themes Are Important

Having examined the concepts of story and setting we can see how these are interrelated and essential to understanding the wider structure of novel. We now delve into the concept of theme and discover how this can enhance your understanding of a book.

Novels normally contain one or two major themes. A theme is a concept that runs through the book and frames the story. It will provide a textual support to the events of the characters. In regards to editing, the importance of theme comes in providing the events and actions with an added dimension. An editor, who is aware of the main themes of a novel, is able to constantly compare the story elements to the themes and ensure that there is a match.

This approach is more of an art than a science but can be highlighted with this example…

Imagine you have a novel in which the theme was ‘love’ with a focus on ‘love is blind.’ This means that as you edit the novel you are constantly looking for ways in which the theme can be expressed. Perhaps you have a character, let’s say an old lady, who has a close attachment to her cat. This is a minor plot point in the overall story, but it provides a chance to examine the main theme. A good editor would suggest that the old lady/cat relationship can be used to examine the theme further. Perhaps the editor suggests the cat is just plain mean, refusing to be handled and only coming to the house for food or perhaps the editor takes the theme to its literal conclusion and suggests the cat is actually blind.

The point here is that a deep understanding of a novel’s theme will provide a framework that the editor can use to enhance the story when working on the novel.

Themes Can Mean Different Things

The term theme can be vague and it means different things to different writers. In fact, there’s no single list of accepted themes and it comes down to the writer to define the themes to which they are writing. This is actually a positive point, since the writer has the freedom to express their own direction for the novel. However, this said, there is a list of universal themes that run through all of modern Western literature.

In order to bring some cohesion to a novel it is best for an editor to consider themes to be either SIMPLE or COMPLEX.

A simple theme is one that can be summarized in a single word or sentence. An example would be ‘Love’, which in our example above is split down to ‘love is blind.’

A complex theme is one that is based more on a concept. An example would be ‘The Great Journey’. This theme sees the character following a series of events to arrive at a location, for example The Wizard of OZ.

So which to use?

Well this is where it gets complex. It is common for a novel to have both simple and complex themes. For example, The Wizard of OZ is not only ‘The Great Journey’ but also has elements of ‘Love’, and integrates the age-old theme that ‘friends are the most important possession’.

The key here is not to get too bogged down in all the detail. If a novel has two or three major themes (be they simple or complex), that is a firm foundation on which to build the edit.

Though I have said that the theme is often defined by the writer, there are a number of commonly recurring themes. What follows are two lists, one with simple themes, the other with more complex themes.

Examples Of Simple Themes

Prejudice

  • Things are not always as they appear.
  • Things are usually not as bad as you think they will be.
  • Look for the golden lining.
  • Beauty is only skin deep.
  • Prejudice leads to wrong conclusions, violence, false perceptions, a vicious cycle, oppression.
  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.
  • Mercy triumphs over judgment.
  • Beware of strangers.
  • People from other cultures are really very much like us.
  • Look before you leap.


Belief

  • Believe in yourself. To succeed, we must first believe that we can.
  • Believe one who has proved it. Believe an expert.
  • The thing always happens that you really believe in; the belief in a thing makes it happen.
  • One needs something to believe in, something for which one can have whole-hearted enthusiasm.
  • As long as people believe in absurdities, they will continue to commit atrocities.
  • Moral skepticism can result in distance, coldness, and cruelty.


Change

  • People are afraid of change but things always change.
  • Things are usually not as bad as you think they will be.
  • Knowledge can help us prepare for the future.
  • Forewarned is forearmed.
  • It is impossible to be certain about things.


Good and Evil

  • Good triumphs over evil.
  • Evil is punished and good is rewarded.
  • Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
  • Bullies can be overcome.
  • Good manners have positive results.
  • Greed leads to negative outcomes: suffering, disaster, catastrophe, evil, callousness, arrogance, megalomania.
  • It is possible to survive against all odds.
  • Jealousy leads to negative outcomes: guilt, resentment, loneliness, violence, madness.
  • Good and evil coexist.


Love

  • Treat others as you want to be treated.
  • Act kindly without seeking ultimate reasons. Practice random acts of kindness.
  • Love is blind.
  • Love triumphs over all: hate, selfishness, cruelty, tragedy, death.
  • Love one another.
  • Love your neighbor.
  • Non-human animals are beings with rights that deserve protection.
  • Friends are a person’s most valuable possession.
  • Blood is thicker than water.
  • When in love, one must suffer.
  • Love is a force for happiness and fulfillment.
  • One should be willing to sacrifice for the person one loves.


Politics

  • Follow the rules.
  • Our system of government is better than other systems.
  • Our system of government would be better if we would change.
  • Rules are there to protect and help us.
  • Personal freedoms, like those listed in the United States Bill of Rights, are good and necessary.
  • Personal freedoms have gone too far and must be curtailed. Freedom cannot exist without personal responsibility.
  • Freedom is worth fighting (or dying) for.
  • Peace is worth fighting (or dying) for.
  • Our system of government is worth fighting (or dying) for.


Growing up

  • Growing up is a great time of life.
  • Growing up is a challenge for everyone.
  • It takes a family to raise a child.
  • Good communication between generations leads to satisfaction, understanding, better relationships, cooperation.


Ambition

  • Too much ambition leads to negative results: self-destruction, envy, greed, neurosis, downfall.
  • One needs ambition in order to succeed.
  • Hard work can bring a great reward.
  • We grow small trying to be great.
  • Goals are dreams we convert to plans and take action to fulfill.


Courage and Fear

  • Understanding feelings of cowardice.
  • Accepting a challenge leads to positive results.
  • One can be courageous and cowardly at the same time.
  • Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.
  • Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.
  • Face your fears.
  • Where fear is present, wisdom cannot be.
  • I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.


Intentions

  • Actions speak louder than words.
  • It’s not the gift that counts.
  • Don’t cry over spilled milk.
  • It is difficult to say who does you the most harm: enemies with the worst intentions or friends with the best.


Knowledge

  • Knowledge is power.
  • Ignorance is bliss.
  • Ignorance is never better than knowledge.
  • If you have knowledge, use it to help others.
  • Know your enemy.
  • Too much learning is a dangerous thing.
  • Be curious always. For knowledge will not acquire you: you must acquire it.


Perseverance

  • Never give up.
  • Try, try again.
  • When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.
  • The race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on running.
  • To protect those who are not able to protect themselves is a duty which everyone owes to society.
  • It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
  • Our duty is to be useful, not according to our desires, but according to our powers.


Happiness

  • Enjoy life while you can.
  • Happiness is not having what you want. It is wanting what you have.
  • Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.
  • The Grand essentials of happiness are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.
  • Happiness depends upon ourselves.
  • To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.


Truth

  • You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
  • Believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it.
  • Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.
  • Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that he also believes to be true.
  • The truth which has made us free will in the end make us glad also.
  • Falsehood is easy, truth so difficult.
  • Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.

Examples of Complex Themes

  • The Great Journey – Characters follow a series of events (normally at different locations) to reach a final destination. The journey is normally both physical, as well as emotional. The characters are ‘transformed’ by the journey.
  • Coming of Age – Sees characters moving from a sheltered world to a more ‘real’ world. Characters tend to go from innocent to ‘grown up’.
  • Noble Sacrifice – A character sacrifices themselves to help others.
  • Great Battle – The main character must battle to overcome a great foe. The battle will be in conflict with either a person, a society, nature, technology or even themselves.
  • Fall From Grace – A character will attempt an act that is beyond their powers with often fatal results.
  • Fate Reversal – A character will undergo a major change that will see them moving from one situation to another, e.g. good to bad.
  • The Big Mystery – An event occurs and the protagonist must uncover the mystery.

The role of the theme is to provide a framework for the writer/editor to make choices about other, more defined elements. As an editor, you will be using concepts such as story and theme to guide the changes you make to a novel. For example, imagine you have a book that has a story which sees a wizard overcoming a powerful enemy to bring freedom to his kingdom. If you add into this the theme of good triumphs over evil, you can see how it will start to influence your editorial choices. It is easy to see a situation, when editing this novel, that you want to create scenes in which the protagonist can be viewed as good and the enemy evil. This might be a simple as the editor suggesting subtle changes to an existing scene or even the suggestion for new scenes to emphasize the nature of the characters.

Exercise

  1. Define the themes for your novel. These can be as complex or as simple as required. If you wrote the novel without a theme in mind, then pick a theme that most closely matches your story. As you edit your work keep this theme in mind and adjust the story to fit the theme.