In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language, but it seems to me that every book — at least every one worth reading — is about something.
What I love so much about this quote is that Stephen King is in no way forcing you to beat your reader’s head over and over with the theme of your story.
He’s not even saying that you necessarily need a specific theme that rings true throughout every chapter of the book. Some books have and need a large theme that hovers over the narrative. And some books have little to no discernible theme at all.
That’s okay. That’s fine.
But King is absolutely right when he says that every book worth reading should be about something.
When I begin a new novel, theme is not at the top of my radar. I’m thinking about the protagonist — his or her want, his or her dream, and that thing that’s going to keep him or her from achieving it.
I’m thinking about the supporting characters, and the antagonist, and the central conflict, and specific scenes I want to write. I’m thinking about where the story begins and where the story ends.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t put much thought into theme when I begin a new writing project. And you want to know why?
Because the theme will appear eventually, after I’ve scanned each and every tree and finally taken a step back to look at the forest.
The theme appears eventually because any story that grabs me, that fascinates me, that lives inside my mind month after month desperate to come out on the page is always about something.
Sometimes the theme isn’t super clear to me right away. Sometimes it takes until the third revision for the theme to break through. But it’s always there.
If your book isn’t at all about a larger idea, you’re in trouble.
If the story’s not about something that goes beyond your characters and your premise, then you might have to think long and hard if this is the project you want to write.
If all you’re writing, for example, is a scary ghost story meant to freak the shit out of readers, and it’s about nothing else than that, your novel might not reach as many readers as it could.
Because what makes books great is theme.
What makes books great is something lingering under the surface of the narrative, of your characters’ arc, that come to light in a way that strikes each reader differently.
When a book is entertaining, thrilling, surprising, and meaningful in some beautiful way? That’s where great stories come from. Those are the stories you turn to again and again.
The stories that aren’t really about anything can be fun, can make the time pass fine for a few hours, but they won’t leave an impact on you. They won’t be books that stay with you long after you’ve closed the final page.
Again, don’t obsess over theme at the start of your project.
It absolutely doesn’t hurt to know your theme at the beginning, and keep it in the back of your mind as you draft your novel.
But don’t fixate on theme either. You don’t even have to know what your theme is as you start writing. Just make sure, always, that your book is about something.
Beyond your genre. Beyond your premise. Beyond your main character.
And even it takes you until the revision process to understand exactly what your book is truly about, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a compelling and memorable novel that no reader will want to miss.