I find that many writers I work with (for those of you new to my site, I’m an editor as well as an author) are a bit fuzzy about theme.
Some writing courses and literary “experts” can be pretentious about it, making beginner writers feel they’ll never be able to understand the concept fully, let alone make it work in their writing.
I love what Stephen King has to say about theme: it is, quite simply, the reason you wrote the book; the reason it matters.
You most likely won’t know this when you start. That’s OK. Every book is “about” something, King suggests. Your job during or just after the first draft is to decide what that something is. Your job in the second draft (and subsequent drafts) is to make that something even clearer. And this might mean substantial cuts, revisions, alterations, and loads of rewriting.
Important: Your theme does not have to be earth-shatteringly noble or life-changing.
We all have interests and preoccupations and passions and issues we ponder when out walking or sinking into sleep. Things that matter to us. You don’t have to try to get one of these things into your writing. It’ll inevitably do that all by itself.
Your job is to identify it, then to polish and revise and enrich until your final draft sings with it.
Important: Don’t start with theme and then move on to plot. I don’t know how often I’ve spoken to an aspiring writer who says they want to write a book “about love/obsession/the importance of connection/world peace/Freudian symbolism” … but they don’t have a story yet.
“Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme,” says King – not the other way round.
Write your story. Stand back and ask yourself what it’s about; what it “means”.
Then make that meaning sing.