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

The One Thing That Will Kill Your Manuscript

The Artful Edit by Susal Bell

We all have writing or writers we admire and aspire to. It is not easy to abandon your ideal in order to accept what you perceive, at first, as your own meager self. It can take time to hear the power of your own voice, and until you do, you may keep hoping that you sound like George Eliot or Djuna Barnes, Stephen King or David Halberstam. Trying to sound like so-and-so is a fine exercise when you’re building your chops, but once you start your work in earnest as a relatively mature writer, it is literary suicide. To write falsely is not to write at all.

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