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I am in the process of the writing a book. It is not my first attempt.

My goals for the book are:

  • Naturally, appeal to my target audience and with work and luck, sell well.
  • Invoke the same emotions, that I enjoy having while reading a good book, within my readers.
  • Invite them into my custom world etc. etc.

So far, so simple (in concept :) )

But now I am a bit worried:
I have, of course, read a ton of advice and "how-to-write-better-books" (next to many articles on the internet and so on). They all offer at least a small morsel of value to me, so thats not the problem. I generally apply a mix-match-collect attitude.

But most of the theories and guides to writing and story structure seem to agree that a story without a theme will fail to entertain readers.

All of them agree that a novel should have a climax as well, a point which I strongly agree with. Is the theme as universal as the climax for a story?

What do you guys think? By the way, English is not my mother tongue.

CLARIFICATION: Since there seems to be a problem with the exact definition of theme I will try to clarify:

This SE defines its as follows: "Theme' refers to a message being conveyed to the reader by the author, through a piece of creative writing, usually a novel"

So I am referring to a single clear (but might be subtly woven into the plot) piece of advice from author to reader like "This is the way you should behave if caught in a similar situation" or "This is the way to behave morally right".

This is not about a question if I should have a blatant message within the book, but rather if I need to have the aforementioned theme, sort of an suggestion how to behave.

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    To me "theme" and "message" are two different things. A "theme" is what the story is about (a one sentence description of the story). A "message" is what you want to tell the audience. A message is more: ram it down their throats. – ShadoCat Apr 17 at 20:01
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    What you describe as theme, I know as the premise. Theme is used on this site in this sense aswell (hover over tag for tooltip). I hope thats not a problem. – user13402 Apr 17 at 20:06
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    It's not a problem but, for me, "message" has negative connotations since it is often done poorly and makes the story feel like a propaganda piece. – ShadoCat Apr 17 at 20:09
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    It seems to me that a theme is something that is usually there whether you intentionally put it there or not, and the best ones are the unintentional ones. So it may not be necessary to intentionally plan out and deliberately include some theme(s) in your writing, but it will help you to read through your first and second drafts and find any and all theme(s) that you subconsciously put in and make sure they are well-served by the writing. – Todd Wilcox Apr 18 at 14:01
  • It depends on who your audience is. You need a message to appeal to me, sure. If your readers just want a story that makes them feel things then you don't need a message. – Kyle Delaney Apr 19 at 19:40
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A message and a theme are not the same thing

A story need not have a coherent message to be successful. Look at Disney's take on The Little Mermaid - what was the message? If you sign away your soul to chase after a cute guy, you might get to keep your soul AND reconcile the stormy relationship you've got with your father? When striking deals with dark, supernatural powers - the dark powers cheat? Or maybe that the grass really is greener on the other side of the fence?

The Little Mermaid (or Disney's take on it) definitely has themes, though - like the common pairing of a longing for a different life, and the ups and downs of being dropped into an unfamiliar environment. There's the struggle and confusion that goes along with growing up and finding your place in the world. And there's rebellion and reconciliation. Etc.

A story without a coherent theme is like a fish man getting run over on his way to buy donuts to hang on his ears. It doesn't make sense. Your reader is left wondering what the point of it was.

Fortunately, themes often arise naturally. Reader confusion may be a sign that a coherent theme is missing. However, it's common that some theme is part of what makes the story interesting to you as a writer - so you may not need to put one in artificially.

A story without a message is... normal.

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    Also, messages can arise inadvertently. Using Disney as an example again, the message from Beauty and the Beast might be: if you love your abuser enough they will stop abusing you. – ShadoCat Apr 17 at 20:12
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    @ShadoCat Disney obscures the message a bit - but I took Beauty and the Beast to have a similar message to many other fairy tales: "Behave well even in terrible situations, and help may come from unexpected quarters." It's often contrasted with: "Behave badly when you think you can get away with it, and retribution may catch you unawares." (Tellings of Cinderella which include horrible fates for the stepsisters and stepmother embody both ideas.) – Jedediah Apr 17 at 20:42
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    I always took the messages to be the following: 1) Love is deeper than physical appearance, because Belle falls in love with the Beast despite him being conventionally ugly. 2) Don't blame others for problems caused by one's own personality, insofar as the Beast blamed the witch's curse for his life being so miserable, but a lot of it was just him being nasty. Of course, there could have been better ways to execute them: other authors have had the Beast not change (Tanith Lee), or had Belle change instead (Shrek, anyone?), or had Belle not fall in love with the Beast till after he reforms. – Obie 2.0 Apr 18 at 5:46
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    @Obie2.0 1) Love is deeper than physical appearance...if you're male ;) it's very much a product of its time. – Ynneadwraith Apr 18 at 9:30
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    @Obie2.0 If we're headcanoning things then you could say that the Beast has very poor eyesight in his cursed form so can't tell what she looks like ;) – Ynneadwraith Apr 18 at 9:35
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Let’s look at the even-numbered Star Trek movies. They’re considered good pop culture, and tonally, they’re all over the map, so they’re a good example.

Counting backwards, VI is a blatant allegory for the end of the Cold War. IV has an explicit message that was trendy at the time (“Save the Whales!”), and became the iconic example on TV Tropes of making up an absurd fictional consequence to frighten the audience (“Or else aliens will destroy the Earth in three hundred years!”)—but that’s largely because the movie is a comedy with all the Star Trek characters in the contemporary San Francisco Bay area, and the plot is an excuse to get them there. The message of the movie is not really its theme.

The there’s II. It doesn’t have an explicit message (although Khan, Spock and Kirk all do get speeches about what they think the lesson of their lives is), but it has themes. Big themes. The director and screenwriter, Nicholas Meyer, has talked bout how those developed around the needs of the production: Leonard Nimoy was ready to stop playing Spock, so Meyer saw that the way to lure him back to make the movie was to promise him the chance to play a great death scene. Originally, that would have been closer to the beginning, but in rewrites, it kept getting pushed later until it became the climax at the end. This got Meyer thinking, “We were giving birth to planets, and Kirk was meeting his son, and Spock was dying. You sort of looked at that and said, ‘Well, what unifying ideas are running through here?’ And then you thought, ‘Ah! This is going to be a movie about…’” At that point, Meyer decided, “This was going to be a story in which Spock died, so it was going to be a story about death, and it was only a short hop, skip, and a jump to realize that it was going to be about old age and friendship.”

So all of these are popular, well-reviewed movies that have stood the test of time, and are liked mostly by the same people today, but in terms of themes or messages they’re all over the place. The consensus is that the most serious movie, the one About Growing Old And Friendship And Death, is the “best” Star Trek movie. That isn’t sarcasm: a lot of people have a real emotional reaction to that, especially people who grew up with the show and saw the movie as they got older. But it’s also not as if First Contact needs to be about anything more than saving the Earth from the bad guys and maybe a little about PTSD to be considered a good Star Trek movie.

Or if you’d rather use books as examples, Lord of the Rings does have things for academics to talk about: it has literary motifs, allusions to mythology, the preeminent set of constructed languages in all of literature, and even a few homilies on topics such as capital punishment, but it’s not in any way a book about big ideas. The Narnia series, written at the same time for a similar audience, does have big ideas (with The Silver Chair expanding Plato’s allegory of the Cave into a setting and giving it a Christian apologetic twist), yet today it’s mostly written off as preachy Christian books for kiddies.

If you look at the kind of literature that people usually call “great,” and study in literature classes, it typically tries not to sound didactic. That’s considered a mark against it. The kind of person who talks about what a work really means doesn’t want everything spelled out for them. Also, if a work of literature is trying to argue for a political point and is universally considered great, then almost by definition it has to be saying something that everybody agrees with. Treating anyone but a small child as if you have to spell out the obvious to them is going to come across as condescending (Although a lot of the best books with a political message are for one reason or another disqualified from being assigned to children: they have upsetting endings, all the better to motivate the reader to get up and change the world, or they deal frankly with sexuality.) Even so, some books in the Western Canon do have an explicit moral. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath and All Quiet on the Western Front all have stand-ins for the author tell us how we should feel about what happened. This is mostly, though, a thing of the past. If a work shows a villain having a great time and showing all the authority figures up, until the final scene where he’s punished and the audience gets a lecture about how you mustn’t admire him because he’s bad, a modern audience is going to be extremely cynical about the disclaimer at the end.

More often, though, there’s room for us to make up our minds. People still debate whether Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it” when he wrote Paradise Lost, or whether he was consciously being subversive, or perhaps we’re just projecting our own modern viewpoints onto the poem. People disagree about whether Shakespeare meant Brutus as a villain or a tragic hero. But these works touch on big, universal themes that people still care about and identify with today.

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    +1 for the Star Trek II portion, which highlights what I think is a big point: The theme need not be (perhaps should not be) deliberately planned at the beginning, but can be (should be?) discovered during the writing process. – Todd Wilcox Apr 18 at 14:03
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    Just a nitpick, but IV was set in San Francisco, not LA... Star Trek: Voyager had an episode that was basically "Star Trek characters in the Modern world" and set it in LA this time (because they filmed in the city). While IV was more comeidic in tone than the other ones, much of the humor was from how out of place the cast was in our own setting. Here the theme was a satirical critique of the present as well as how ignorant people can be of history (Half the humor of Checkov is his character keeps getting sent on missions where a thick Russian Accent is not the most helpful thing to have). – hszmv Apr 18 at 18:55
  • @hszmv And Alameda, which is right across the bay in Alameda. 🖖 – Davislor Apr 18 at 19:42
  • @hszmv For what it’s worth, Koenig’s accent as Checkov sounds nothing like a Russian accent, and the reboot movies explain it as a speech impediment. Many Russian words start with a V sound. So it’s not clear if any character in the movie thinks “Nuclear wessels” sounds Russian. – Davislor Apr 18 at 19:52
  • @hszmv Thank you for the nitpick! Corrected now – Davislor Apr 18 at 19:56
7

I'll set out my stall straight away: I think a theme is essential. However, I don't see how you can write something worthwhile that doesn't have a theme.

If you are trying to appeal to your readers, how are you doing to do so? Are you suggesting that good will overcome evil? Does worrying about your body image get in the way of positive relationships? Is climate change the issue of the century? Your story has to have an idea behind it.

What are the emotions you enjoy when reading a book? What evokes them? Is it the good winning? Is it hypocrisy being shown up? Is it clever ideas being shown to be better than stupid ones?

What are the social, cultural and historical constraints on your imaginary world? These things, be they positive or negative, form part of your theme. For example, 'Macbeth' was written at a time when women had little power, were not allowed to be actors and were expected to be caring mothers. Lady Macbeth is the opposite of all these things.

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    I think this makes a really good point which is hinted at in other answers. A novel that feels like "the author is trying to write about theme X" is going to feel phony compared to a novel that feels like "the author wrote a great story and I happened to learn about X from that story." – dwizum Apr 19 at 13:57
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In slightly different words from those of Reverend Lovejoy: Short answer, maybe not with an if; long answer, maybe with a but.

Remember when they made you read specific novels in school, boring you or at least a few of your classmates? But you had to read those ones in particular, because they were great literature. That's the idea, anyway. What's great about them? Presumably, a theme or a message or something with a fancy Latinate technical term that comes to the same thing.

But novels worth studying in school aren't necessarily representative of publishable novels, or of commercially or critically successful ones, or even of ones that deserve to be indefinitely well-remembered. Syllabuses choose the novels that are easiest to claim, convincingly or otherwise, are many pages dragging out opinions that fit on a postcard. Anything else is too complicated to ease you into the subject. (Best still, with some of the chosen novels it's probably true!)

That said, themes, messages etc. often come unintentionally, or at least after you started writing a story whose plot was half in your head. Genuinely great stories may well have their themes not because that makes them great, but because their authors can't help but add them in. After all, they're people: they have opinions; unique experiences have shaped them; certain things puzzle them.

So if you don't have an idea for such things yet, don't panic. For one thing, you can brainstorm which ones matter to you; for another, if you flesh out a great story, great world and great characters, it'll come in time if it helps. In fact, if you could get a timeline of when every detail in a novel came in, it would be very messy, maybe something like character-town-theme-plot-theme-plot-character-plot. Also, some parts might be swapped for something else.

The same goes for stories in any medium, but you almost never get such inside details. If you do, it seems to happen with early concepts for films. Let's take Coco, which for some reason I can't stop mentioning in my answers. Originally, it would have been about a boy learning how to let go of his late mother, the theme presumably being "you should let go after you mourn". Research into Mexican culture quickly revealed, however, that the point of Día de Muertos is to not let go, but rather to remember the dead because it benefits them. Needless to say, one theme gave way to another pretty quickly at that point. Don't be afraid to discover your story needs that.

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I keep going back to the story in Breaking Bad. The purpose of the story, novel or TV series, is to establish characters in an environment and then show how they react or accommodate to some shift in their world or events in their lives.

The main character gets cancer. This changes his goals and eventually his values. Eventually he becomes someone he had not expected to become. He struggles with the choices he makes all along the way. Some changes he sees and others he does not untill they are pointed out to him.

We are brought to his life at that exact point, not a year sooner or later, just to see how he reacts. Had we just watched him stay healthy, grow older and his kids grow up it would be a yawner.

You can have a consistent environment but why are we seeing it on this day? Why not earlier or later? If written well the novelty of the future or past is notable to the reader but not the character. They are used to flying cars, horse drawn and otherwise. What is new and different to the hero? Is his flying car not where he parked it?

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Take modern social media as an example. Many different types of people see the posts, what someone has written. They all have many different “takes” on those words. If you write something that is interesting to read, people will attribute their own messages to it. Look at critical reviews of famous novels, such as “A Separate Peace” (Knowles.)

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