I was very fortunate to attend Julie Cohen's inspiring seminar 'Using Theme' during the RNA Conference in Sheffield last weekend. I am actually a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn't previously thought about the theme of my novels, whether the two historical romances already published, or in my work in progress. I just 'wrote' them! Having to focus on what was the theme - or themes - of my stories was a revelation, as well as an incredibly enjoyable experience!
So what is theme?
It can be the idea you are exploring, the emotional core of the book, or the question you keep returning to. The theme of a novel isn't the plot, but its underlying idea or problem, the pivot upon which the book turns. Identity, belonging, dealing with loss and justice are all powerful themes, but there are many more, and some authors find themselves drawn to the same themes over and over again.
There can be one or several themes in a novel. For example, one could argue that the themes in Pride and Prejudice are status, love and money, whereas Romeo and Juliet's themes could be love and hate, duality, or young love.
The theme of the novel can appear in the title or the very first line. It drives the characters' conflicts and desires and makes the resolution of the story more satisfying. It also helps design secondary characters and subplots which can then deal with the theme in a different way than the main plot, and with a different resolution. The theme of the novel also helps choose the setting, or settings, of the story. And, of course, it will be present in the writing style, for example with the metaphors and the symbolism used.
I found this part of the workshop absolutely fascinating. I realised that if I had not articulated before what the themes of my current project were, I had actually subconsciously used them to determine the title - 'Dancing for the Devil' -, the moods, conflicts and even the names of my two main characters, not to mention the setting - Cape Wrath in the far North of Scotland.
So what are the themes of 'Dancing for the Devil'? Overcoming the past and self-discovery.
Of course, having now determined what the themes actually were, I have been busy rewriting the first chapter. All I have to do now is finish the story...