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Thursday, November 14, 2013

Common Themes in Literature by Jacqueline Seewald

Whether authors of fiction write short stories, plays or novels, theme is an essential component, just like characterization, plot and setting. The theme of a book is a universal idea or message that stretches throughout a work. Themes are often sociological or cultural in nature.

Some themes reoccur often. For instance, I just finished reading a thriller novel in which the theme was conspiracy theory, common in suspense genre. Fiction writers often pull their themes from nonfiction and then write faction. Dan Brown and Brad Meltzer are two very popular suspense authors who do this. Shakespeare used the underlying theme in his plays that appearances are deceiving. This works particularly well in the theatre.

Good fiction writing needs a cohesive theme to hold the work together. The lesson is generally about life or humanity and is preferably implied rather than stated outright. The show-not-tell rule works well with theme.

In YA lit, the theme is often coming-of-age. However, there may be more than one theme, especially in a novel. One way to convey theme is through recurring use of symbolism. Hawthorne and Hemingway were both particularly talented in that regard. My forthcoming YA novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER which will be published by Astraea Press uses symbolism as well.

Romances concentrate on the theme of finding love everlasting. This is true of my short story collection BEYOND THE BO TREE offered on Amazon Kindle:

However, even with romance fiction there are often secondary themes. My soon be published prize-winning historical romance THE CHEVALIER is very much connected with themes of war and politics.

 Mysteries are about finding solutions and discovering the truth about puzzling situations such as solving murders and imposing order where there was chaos. For instance, my romantic suspense spy thriller DEATH LEGACY, both romance and mystery, explores whether a CIA agent was an enemy mole or a murder victim. 


There are often socially significant secondary themes in crime fiction. For example, in my co-authored novel THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY

we deal with the theme of bullying. Jim who is short for his age is bullied by an older boy. He learns how to cope with the situation. His search for a murderer also interconnects with the theme of bullying. This is a theme that has increased awareness in our modern society where young people have tragically ended up committing suicide owing to cyber bullying. Even successful pro football players are not immune to this kind of abuse.
All types of writing need an underlying idea which serves as a fundamental component. Writing without a theme is like sailing in a rudderless ship. It will eventually flounder and sink.

What themes interest you in particular as a reader or a writer? What themes appear to be especially important?


34 comments:

Patricia Gligor said...

Jacqueline,
Good topic!
I read and write mystery/suspense novels. In my Malone mystery series, the theme is Hope, something my characters need to have in order to cope with all that "life" hands them. And, something I think we all need to hang on to.

Susan said...

Theme is what holds a book together. All good books have themes - bad books don't. Without a consistent theme a book is nothing but a string of words.

I think the more basic a theme is (love, survival, et al) the stronger the book is because it resonates more deeply with the reader. It's hard to become involved on a deep level with a book whose theme is the undesirability of French toast, or something equally trivial. It could be momentarily entertaining, but not memorable.

Good thoughts, Jacqui - and something that all writers should consider.

Susan, aka Janis

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Patricia,

Thanks for commenting. I appreciate a book that has an inspiring theme like Hope. Very worthwhile!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

Thanks for dropping by. I do agree that basic themes like love and survival resonate most deeply with readers.

Susan Oleksiw said...

This is a good reminder that any book should go deeper than the plot. As writers we need to think through what the book is about and draw out those ideas for the story. Good post.

Terry W. Ervin II said...

Themes of loyalty and sacrifice are generally a part of my SF and Fantasy novels, which are pretty much action-adventure based.

My short stories vary quite a bit, but usually have some bearing on consequences for actions and decisions made--sometimes when there isn't a good answer.

Alice Duncan said...

Fascinating blog, Jacquie! It's interesting where different folks find the themes for their books. I like it that you're dealing with bullying in THE THIRD EYE. It's such a problem nowadays. Well, it probably always was, but the media wasn't so . . . everywhere in bygone years.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thank you, Susan. I agree with you. It's just as important to consider theme as plot, and in fact, theme has much to do with influencing plot. I think of Thomas Hardy, for example, in that regard. Social issues of the Victorian era were so much a part of his theme and plot lines. Many mystery writers are social activists in the modern day.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

Thank you stopping by and commenting. At the heart of all good genre fiction are serious themes such as yours.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Alice,

I think you're right about the theme of bullying. The problem has always existed unfortunately. But nowadays it draws more attention and rightfully so.

Jan Christensen said...

Great post, Jacqueline. I sometimes forget to consider theme for my writing, but since most of it is mystery, there's always the theme about justice being served. I also notice that I often write about female friendship and consider that one of my main themes.

Carole Price said...

Enjoyed the post, Jacquie, especially Shakespeare's theme. So far I've only written mysteries and the theme is puzzle solving. I hadn't thought about it before, but they're also about overcoming obstacles.

Yves Fey said...

Love your covers.

D'Ann said...

The power of family. Redemption.

Good post!

Gemma Juliana said...

Hope, self-esteem, vindication... I love when the theme rings through enough in a story that the reader gets it without thinking about it.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Jan,

Justice being served is certainly an important theme in mystery fiction. Yours carry it through extremely well.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Carole,

I love the way you used Shakespeare in TWISTED VINES.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Yves,

Thank you for the compliment on the cover art. I suggested some of it, but real artists created them. So I can't take the credit.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, D'Ann,

Redemption is a strong theme.
The power of family love is certainly another strong theme as well.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Gemma,

I agree. You know the writer has done a good job with theme when the ideas are clearly implied and there's no lecturing.

Gail Farrelly said...

Jacquie,

Very good post.

Re bullying, I thought it was interesting that the new book by Doris Kearns Goodwin on Teddy Roosevelt is called "Bully Pulpit."


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Gail,

Teddy Roosevelt was quite an interesting character. I'll have to read that book.

Maggie Toussaint said...

I'm one of those writers who didn't realize I had a recurring theme until I'd written several published books. I write about redemption, apparently. I don't consciously think about it, but it just seems that my people are trying to make up for a past wrong or trying to correct a mistake they've made. Another of my themes seems to be family. I like to contrast characters with no family with characters who think they have too much family.

A psychologist would probably have a field day with me!

I enjoyed your post, Jacqueline, and I enjoy your books as well!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks for your comments, Maggie.
I notice that several writers have now specifically mentioned that their novels have themes of redemption and family. Obviously, these are common themes in society. I too deal with family in many of my novels, the Kim Reynolds mysteries and most certain The Third Eye.

Kathy McIntosh said...

Good post. Someone (Donald Maas, maybe?) said that our themes are often not evident or obvious when we begin a novel, but become apparent after the first draft. We can then choose to emphasize elements that bring out the theme.
Jacquie, you are very aware of the themes of your books. Some of us repeat the same themes (justice, redemption) because they reflect something in our own lives.
Me? I just try to be funny, but that plea for justice and redemption keeps sneaking in.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Kathy,

I think things are funny to us because they ring true and real. Humor isn't easy to write. It takes insight.

Cindy Sample said...

Great post as always, Jacquie. I'm just beginning my 4th book which was the perfect time to reflect on the themes in some of my earlier books. I tend to have one theme that develops as my protagonist searches for clues to the villain. But I also want my 39-year-old protagonist, as well as her 62- yea- old mother, to achieve personal growth and there is usually an underlying theme related to a particular issue concerning each of them. It's kind of fun to see my characters growing up-)

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi,Cindy,

Your humorous mysteries are very popular. You bring up a theme that no one else has really touched on before. In a series, particularly mystery novels, the author can create main characters and even secondary ones that grow as real people do. I enjoy reading this type of series myself. I also write the Kim Reynolds mystery series and the characters change and grow just as in your novels.

Nancy Means Wright said...

An excellent blog, Jacquie.I think my themes are often personal ones concerned with identity. In all my series my characters are filled with self doubts, wondering why they become involved with a murder, yet unable to keep away. Pursuing social justice yet feeling inadequate to deal with it as one person--especially when cast into a difficult situation.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Those are wonderful themes, Nancy, very insightful.

bdtharp said...

Excellent post, Jacqui. Thank you for the reminder. Sometime we authors forget to make those themes seamless in the fight to make them poignant.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Bonnie,

Thanks for stopping by. Yes, it really is best to find subtle ways to suggest theme.

Marilyn Levinson said...

Great post, Jacqueline. I agree. All books have or should have a theme. I find this especially true in books for young readers. In Getting Back to Normal, my protagonist Vannie learns to live her new life without her mother. In No Boys Allowed, Cassie adjusts to life after her parents' divorce. The theme of And Don't Bring Jeremy is Adam's acceptance of his brother's disabilities. Even my humorous Rufus and Magic Run Amok deals with an important theme--learning to deal with changes within you.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Marilyn,

I agree that books for young readers certainly should have a clear them. It sound as if yours are thought-provoking and meaningful. Congrats!