Theme is one of those concepts that can be hard to understand. We probably all learned in school that theme is a story’s “message”—the ideas that readers are supposed to take away from the story—but even that definition doesn’t clarify the answer enough.
We often repeat themes in our stories. Why? We want to come up with unique characters and plots, so why are themes different? If we understand why we repeat themes, we might gain a better understanding of what themes really are.
Our uncertainty about what themes are also isn’t helped by the fact that many of us encountered teachers during our school years who tried to tell us that the theme they identified was the theme—the important theme, the theme that mattered—and whatever we came up with was wrong. However, a story can (and probably will) have multiple themes.
More importantly, by understanding themes, we’ll do a better job of satisfying our readers. Trust me. *smile*
There’s been a big debate lately about readers being unhappy with some books being called romances, and believe it or not, the controversy comes down to themes. Let’s explore…
Why Do We Repeat Themes in Our Stories?
Whether we’re consciously aware of it or not, certain ideas and beliefs resonate deep inside us. Our view of the world—optimistic or pessimistic, God does or doesn’t exist, true love is possible or not, people are basically good or selfish, technology will help us or kill us, etc.—is deeply a part of us.
More often than not, our stories will reflect that worldview.
While we can write characters with opposite beliefs, we’d likely find it difficult to write a whole story where the point was to “prove” a worldview that we don’t believe in. For example, if we believe people are basically good at their core, we’re not likely to write a story that “proves” all people are selfish or evil.
In other words, our story’s themes reflect our worldview. Therefore, unless we go through a massive psychological change that affects our worldview, our themes will repeat.
How Do Themes Affect Readers?
Our story’s messages or themes try to convince readers to consider another view of the world:
- what to value,
- what to believe,
- what to hope for,
- what to aim for, etc.
But we don’t just come out and say those messages. Instead, themes play in the subtext of our story.
Subtext can be powerful, however. A message that readers might reject if written out in a spoon-feeding or you-should-believe-this way might get through their defenses when presented in subtext.
Subtext is especially powerful as the clues add up over the course of the story. During revisions, we can make our theme more powerful by weaving our message through all the different elements of our story.
The plot arc can reinforce our character arc, which coordinates with the villain’s tragic flaw, etc. Each of those elements can create a theme, and hopefully those themes will work together to create a stronger, deeper message.
What Are Some of the Types of Themes?
The job of convincing readers to consider the world through a different perspective comes down to story elements. With that in mind, we can identify a list of the most common elements creating our themes:
- Story Themes: What is the premise of the story? Who’s supposed to win or lose—and why?
Making Our Case: Story Themes aim to convince readers by presenting a premise and resolution that match the values and beliefs of the worldview.
- Character Themes: How does the character change over the course of the story? What does the character learn?
Making Our Case: Character Themes aim to convince readers by presenting a character who learns the lesson for them.
- Plot Themes: During the turning points of the story, what do the characters attempt? Do they succeed or fail—and why?
Making Our Case: Plot Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story Themes.
- Choices Themes: What choices are the characters making? Do the results match the Story or Character Themes (choices that agree with the themes should succeed and vice versa)?
Making Our Case: Choices Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story or Character Themes.
- Villain Themes: What are the villain’s beliefs? Are they reinforced or disproved by plot events?
Making Our Case: Villain Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story or Character Themes.
But Wait—One More Theme to Add to the List!
Since writing the post referenced above that delves into those different types of themes, I’ve realized there’s one more element that creates a theme for most stories.
This element is so high-level that we probably aren’t consciously aware of it. Yet it might be responsible for why we write the genre we do. *smile*
- Genre Themes: What is the promise to the reader from our genre? Does the story deliver?
People often talk about genre stories being formulaic, but what they really mean is that genres make promises to the reader—and that promise is inflexible. Yet the reason the promise is inflexible is because that’s why readers of the genre pick up the story.
When thriller readers pick up a story marketed as a thriller, they expect to find a story with a nail-biting race to a satisfying confrontation with the villain. Just as a slow-moving story with low stakes wouldn’t cut it for the thriller reader, neither would a story where the villain wins and the world is destroyed.
The implicit Genre Theme for thrillers might be along the lines of:
Survival is possible.
When mystery readers pick up a story marketed as a mystery, they expect to find a story with a crime that’s solved in a satisfying way. Just as a story without a mystery or crime to solve wouldn’t cut it for the mystery reader, neither would a story where the criminal isn’t caught and the mystery isn’t solved.
The implicit Genre Theme for mysteries might be along the lines of:
Justice is possible.
When romance readers pick up a story marketed as a romance, they expect to find a story with a central love story building to a satisfying and happy relationship. Just as a story without a love or romance plot wouldn’t cut it for the romance reader, neither would a story where the relationship doesn’t have a happy ending.
The implicit Genre Theme for romances is:
Happiness is possible.
Don’t Break the Genre’s Promise to the Reader
Most readers read many different genres, but when they pick a thriller over a mystery, they’re likely in the mood for a high-stakes story. When a reader picks a romance over science fiction, they’re often specifically in the mood for a happy ending.
Authors who mess with the promise of the genre are risking very unhappy readers. No matter how much they might like or enjoy the story under other circumstances, the broken promise—the unfulfilled theme—is not what they were in the mood for.
As Kristin Bailey hilariously tweeted to me yesterday, a broken promise is like:
“I wrote a science fiction novel!”
“What is it about?”
“Aging siblings remembering their dead mother’s pie recipe…”
“That’s not Science Fiction.”
“But it takes place 20 years from now! That’s the future!!!”
Obviously, every kind of story is possible, but the genre categories have meaning. Not every book set in the future is science fiction. Not every “thrilling” story belongs in the thriller genre. Not every love-focused or romantic story belongs in the romance genre.
There are plenty of stories where the villain wins. Just don’t call those thrillers. Likewise, don’t call stories where the crime isn’t solved mysteries. And don’t call stories without a “happily ever after” or a “happily for now” ending romances.
Readers who pick up those books expect the genre’s theme to be fulfilled. That’s why they read the story.
Those implicit themes match the reader’s worldview—or at least their current mood. The readers of those genres hope they can believe in survival, justice, or happiness, etc.
If the story doesn’t deliver on the theme, their worldview—their hope for the world—is attacked. No matter how good the story is, the reader will feel tricked and will not be happy with the author.
As romance author Maisey Yates tweeted yesterday:
“I might like an oatmeal raisin cookie … but I would not if I were expecting chocolate.”
Disappointed readers are not happy readers. Take it from one of the millions who have trust issues because of oatmeal raisin cookies posing as chocolate chip cookies. *smile*
The Romance Genre “Controversy”
Recently, there have been many books marketed as part of the romance genre that don’t fulfill the genre’s promise. The romance genre is huge and money-making.
It’s the latter aspect that’s bringing out the greedy, the authors who want part of the romance genre money-pie but don’t actually want to write it. So they get it into their head to rationalize their non-happy ending to romance readers:
- “It’s edgy!” — Not really. Shakespeare did it with Romeo and Juliet hundreds of years ago.
- “It’s just like Romeo and Juliet!” (or any other non-happy-ending love story *cough* Nicholas Sparks) — Yes, but those aren’t romances.
- “It’s gritty and more realistic!” — Happiness isn’t realistic? The hope for happiness is part of the romance worldview. To push anything else is a disrespectful attack on readers’ beliefs and hopes. Attacks and rudeness won’t win over readers.
- “The genre should change!” — Are there also calls for science fiction, thrillers, mysteries, etc. to change their essence? That mysteries should be “more realistic” and not solve crimes to reflect the reality of cold cases? No? Didn’t think so. Stop acting like romance readers are too stupid to know what they want.
Unfortunately, success and opportunity always bring out the greedy. So the problem of false marketing for monetary gain won’t go away.
As Nicholas Sparks’s success proves, there’s nothing wrong with love-focused or romantic stories without happy endings. Many of his readers are also romance readers, so it’s not like the greedy have to choose one type of reader or the other. But his books are not marketed as part of the romance genre, and his readers know that.
That’s the difference. That’s the bait-and-switch. That’s the money grab.
Just because some people want to trick readers doesn’t mean the definition has changed. Thinkpieces about the “changing” nature of the romance genre don’t understand the genre, as the dozens of comments on that post—all of which disagree with the premise—can attest. (Yes, this is one time to read the comments. *smile*)
Genres are about the promise, the theme, the expectation, the worldview. Stories with internal themes that don’t match the genre’s implicit themes don’t fit.
Those who don’t understand try to say that the romance genre is about love and romance, and therefore any story with love or romance should fit. But that’s not the case…
Romance is—and always will be—about happiness at its core.
Anyone who disagrees with that also doesn’t understand the drive behind the “we need diverse romance” movement. Diversity matters in the romance genre because people of all stripes want to believe that someone like them can find happiness.
That’s why representation—good representation—matters so much in the genre. Everyone wants to see that someone like them—someone who’s darker-skinned, non-Christian, disabled, LGBTQIA, older, heavier, neurodivergent, divorced, a parent, a rape victim, in debt, or whatever, whatever, whatever—deserves to be happy too. That even those who don’t fit society’s idea of “perfect” can hope for happiness.
The point of the romance genre is the hope for happiness. Period.
Themes matter. Stories with broken themes don’t work. It’s far better to learn the themes of our stories and our genres to keep the readers happy. *smile*
Have you ever thought about the expectations for a genre as being a theme? Do you disagree with my take on themes? Do you have other suggestions for the themes of genres? Is the theme of your genre part of what makes it appealing to you? What’s your opinion on the romance genre debate?Pin It