How to Appropriately Express Your Theme

I’ve read a lot of books on writing and all of them have reiterated more or less the same advice on theme: Define your theme, whether it be a sentence, phrase or word, and then work it into your manuscript. Easy-peasy, right? Of course then they go on to say that your theme should be subtle – more like a soft breeze tickling the reader’s subconscious than a giant fan blowing in her face. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a difficult time melding those two pieces of advice. How can I work in the words of my theme without it being in-your-face? It wasn’t until I read this advice from Susan Bell that it started making more sense:

A theme is not a message. It is an idea written in invisible ink on the backside of your text. Choose a theme you want to emphasize. Then think of what image could represent it. Make it nonliteral – do not dumb down your theme with a cliche . . . Metaphorical symbols, such as color, texture, fragrance, or sound, may work better . . . A piece of discordant music or a grating noise might signal abrasive communication; velvety-surfaces – marshmallows, pussy willows, a stuffed animal, a velvet coat – could signal love’s comfort. Bamboo might symbolize flexibility; metal, modernity; the smell of burning, infidelity. . . Maybe a girl who is gaining enlightenment keeps walking across things, getting from one place to another – a bridge, a ladder, a plank set over a puddle. But if she performs the same action too many times, your subtle hint will slap too hard on the reader’s head.

– Susan Bell, The Artful Edit: On the Practice of Editing Yourself

*Photo by Bells Design @ Gratisography / CC0

One thought on “How to Appropriately Express Your Theme

  1. It is an interesting exercise and remembered me of the “leitmotiv” in opera.

    The question then is how to be aware of the measure between the “subtle hint” and the “slap”… I think at experiment and time … ?


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