How Big a Hammer? :

Is it important for the reader to understand your theme?

A friend of mine recently submitted his first novel to my critique group, a fantasy with a deeply spiritual theme and lots of symbolism. He was somewhat distressed when his theme and symbolism were completely invisible to 90% of his readers, and the following discussion raised some interesting questions—and very few definitive answers.

How important is it for a novel to have a theme?

I’d have to say, it depends on what kind of novel you’re writing. For literary fiction—very important. For popular fiction, maybe not. I can think of plenty of popular fiction, that I enjoyed a lot, that had no discernable theme.

But what about Science Fiction, the literature of ideas? Or fantasy?


My personal take is that having a theme enriches any novel, but it doesn’t always have to show. Since my books are mostly for kids and young adults the theme is usually pretty clear, though I try not to hit people over the head with it. At least, not with too big a hammer. If your thematic hammer is too big, the reader is likely to find the experience painful rather than enlightening—and your story will suffer for it.

I believe that the presence of a theme can greatly enhance a novel without the reader ever knowing it’s there. It will probably be your theme that determines the choices your character makes, and how he grows. It gives the novel a feeling of depth, of being “about” something. As I told my friend, it could well be his understanding of the theme that gives his writing the luminous, stained-glass quality that lifts it out of the ordinary—even while his intended meaning flies right over my head.

I’d like to say that theme is like an underground river. (That sounds so poetic.) But actually it’s more like the water table. It’s an intrinsic part of the structure of the land, influencing the climate, and the flora and fauna. It pops up in beautiful, unexpected springs that give life to the surrounding territory. And when the people who know that it’s there tap into it, it brings them healthy, growing crops, not to mention drinking water. But I drove from Denver to the coast of Oregon last summer—seven days across southern Idaho and down the Columbia River gorge and five days back through the beautiful deserts of Utah and Nevada. And driving through plains, along rivers, in coastal rain forests and deserts, appreciating the scenery and the ecosystems all along the way…not one single thought of the water table ever so much as crossed my mind.

So I should put down my hammer, and go for hidden water instead?

Well, it depends on what kind of novel you want to write…

Spring 2005

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