I think it was a pin on Pinterest, but it might have been a photo on Tumblr. It’s probably both. It may be neither.
“A novel is not a story, it is a series of stories.”
Think about your favorite part of a novel, and tell me about it…Just that part. It probably has a beginning, a middle, and an end. It probably has a main character, a point of view, and an appropriate tense. If you tried to tell your favorite part of a novel to someone, could you do it? Could you snip away the rest of the story and just tell that tiny story?
Can you do it with the theme?
This whole post occurred to me as I was attempting to tell my aunt how the theme unfolds in the prequel to the novel I’m currently writing. She seemed surprised that I had so much of this un-written-not-currently-being-written novel planned. I tried not to laugh maniacally and scare her. Honestly, the sheer amount of planning I have done over a dozen unwritten stories worries me. I shudder to entertain what a non-writer might think of such scattered thought. The prequel was inspired through the backstory in my current novel, and my fingers have been itching to write this history to TQA. However, I refuse to start on a project until after I finish the task at hand… or I will never go back to it. It’s a proven scientific fact. Anyway.
I got through with telling her how the theme plays out, but it had only taken me a minute or two. This story is going to be well over 100,000 words by the time I cram everything I adore into its chapters. There are pirates, slaves, assassins, shipwrecks, desert islands, and epic love story, a tragic love story, a hilarious love story, theology, philosophy, treachery, polity, and both violent and tender passion. How had I managed to tell the part that tugs hardest at my heartstrings before we’d finished with our appetizers?
It helped that my aunt knew the world, a few of the characters, and a couple of plot points. But even so… it rattled me. This was my theme.
How could the very core of my story be reduced down to such a short bite? Is that normal? Shouldn’t it have a longer wind-up? A harder climax? Nope.
Because the theme of a story is not the flashy bits. It isn’t the death of a character. It isn’t the big twist at the end. It’s the heart.
The theme of every story is a short story, one told briefly but never lightly. In the series of short stories which make up any novel, the theme might well be described as the one to which all others hearken back. It might be obvious, it might not be constant, but if you do it right… it’s the reason a reader glares through tears at the last line of a book and curses the writer for not having written more. Because, as that famous wordsmith once said, “If a book is well written, I always find it too short.” – Jane Austen.