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