I've been thinking a lot lately about theme.
What is it? Some say it's an entire sentence, and it can't be expressed without a sentence, such as:
Revenge leads to self-destruction.
Screenwriting guru Stanley Williams has a more complex formula for theme that he dubs "the moral premise" in his book by that title. To him, no narrative is complete without its moral premise, and the moral premise is like a theme with two parts:
Vice or undesirable quality leads to _____________________
but virtue or desirable quality leads to ___________________.
Simple as it sounds, it does allow an author to construct highly unified themes.
I wish more genre novels emphasized theme. Many genre novels have strong plots, but the theme just doesn't come together. There's not a lot of symbol, resonance, or imagery to make the novel vibrate on a deeper level.
By contrast, in many contemporary literary novels, there's a ton of theme, and no plot to hang it on. This is a departure from many classic novels now considered 'literary', which were more balanced in plot and theme, especially before 1900.
A novel's theme works like the moment of personal epiphany we experience when we look back on past events and suddenly spot a theme in our own life's narrative. But in order for theme to work in novels the way it works in our consciousness, there has to be some forward motion, some action to distract us from the theme while it's accumulating, and then BOOM! At the end, we get the big reveal.
How do you get theme into your work?