And what’s your book about?
“What is this story about?” the writers were asked by a potential producer.
“It’s about a poor man in Russia with several daughters he hopes to find husbands for . . . ” they began to explain.
“No, no, that’s the plot. I want to know what the story is about.”
Again the writers started to explain the storyline.
And again, the man who would become the producer said no, that’s not what he wanted to know. He wanted to know what the show would be about. What would the audience take away? What would the show say to them?
Finally, from what they eventually told him in answer to some other specific questions, he said, “Okay, I’ve got it. This show is about tradition. That’s your theme.”
Yes, that was the theme. Fiddler on the Roof taken down to its essence. The story is about tradition. How Tevye tries to teach his daughters and their eventual husbands the importance of tradition, the importance of their Jewish roots, the importance of remembering and celebrating who they are and where they came from.
Writers, when asked what their stories are about, almost always try to encapsulate the plot instead of giving the questioner the more important information — the story’s theme. That’s probably because most of us have no idea what our theme might be. Some of us don’t even think about theme. Yet theme is more important than just about anything else when it comes to writing a cohesive book with a meaningful “takeaway.” Because basically, that’s what theme is. It’s the one thing the reader will take away from the story. It’s what they’ll remember. It’s your message, what you’re trying to say.
I had my own “aha” moment about theme early on in my writing career. Mary Clare Kersten, my first editor at Silhouette, asked me what my theme was during the phone call where she’d just told me she wanted to buy my first book. I stammered and stuttered, because I had no idea what the theme of CINDERELLA GIRL was, not to mention if it even had a theme.
Mary Clare let me flounder awhile. Then she finally took pity on me. She said that in the Silhouette editorial meeting that morning (this is the weekly meeting where they discuss the books they plan to buy), they had decided the theme of my book was “control.”
“Ahh, yes,” I said, relieved. Control. How wonderful. My novel had a theme, and I hadn’t even realized it. I certainly hadn’t planned it. Of course, once she’d identified my theme, I could see it clearly.
Later I was to learn that the most successful books tie together the theme of the book and the characters’ greatest fears. Strictly by accident (because I really didn’t know what I was doing), the book’s crisis was precipitated by the heroine’s interference (read, control) in the hero’s brother’s life.
My editor went on to suggest several places where I might strengthen my theme, and once she’d pointed them out, I could see exactly how I could do so. That first book was a wonderful learning experience for me, and I’m grateful that the editors at Silhouette saw enough promise in CINDERELLA GIRL (and in my writing) to buy the book even though it had flaws that needed fixing.
I’m also eternally grateful that I finally had that light bulb moment about theme.