Last week I discussed how to identify and develop your theme. That helps overcome the problem of a weak or confusing theme. But I also sometimes critique stories where the author seems to be trying to explain everything they believe about life, the universe, and... well, everything.
For younger readers and short stories, you need to keep the theme simple. The longer the story or novel, and the older the reader, the more complex you can be. At first a book may appear to be a humorous romance, but as the story unfolds, it may reveal a theme about honesty in relationships.
Your theme doesn’t have to be obvious from your first paragraph, and probably shouldn’t be. In fact, the theme may only be clear from the final twist in the story. The theme can be revealed through what the main character learns, how she changes, what she gains or loses.
As part of your revisions (or in the planning stage, if you are really organized), work on your character in order to set up your theme. Use her virtues and vices. How will her strengths help her? What weaknesses does she have to overcome? Make sure these tie into the theme. In The Well of Sacrifice, Eveningstar discovers that she can't count on other people to solve her city's problems -- she has to act. Her courage and deep-seated honesty help her, but she has to overcome the shyness and insecurity that would prefer to let others take center stage.
For longer works, think about how you can use other characters or subplots to support or expand on your theme. Maybe your main character learns to be honest in her relationships, and so develops a loving connection with her boyfriend. In contrast, her friend might keep lying in order to make a good impression, and get dumped, or wind up with a shallow, dissatisfying relationship. A subplot with the main character’s divorced parents could explore the theme in yet another way.
Although you should be able to clearly identify a single main theme, you may have additional themes. Holly Cupala said in an interview, “The theme I seem to be writing is that you can’t find yourself in other people. It’s very much there in Tell Me A Secret as well as the novel I’m working on now. Then there are the peripheral themes—looking to the past for meaning versus looking to the future for purpose, wanting to be loved for who you are, trading blame for hope.”
Multiple themes can give a novel extra depth and power. However, don’t let your story get cluttered with too many themes, especially wildly different ones. If you try to share everything you believe about life in one story, it will just feel cluttered and confusing. Focus on one primary theme, and save the others for different works. For example, my middle grade historical mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh, touches on immigration issues and homeland security (in ancient Egypt, but relevant today). But my main theme can be summed up by these words spoken by Pharaoh toward the end.
“Every Egyptian is my child,” he said, “and I am responsible for them all. By serving one of them, you serve me. If everyone acted with love and courage out of loyalty to their friends, I wouldn’t need soldiers or guards, tax collectors or spies.”
That brings the political commentary down to a personal level and focuses on the main theme -- that supporting your friends and family can sometimes be more important than focusing just on your own success.
So for short fiction, keep your theme simple and focused. For longer work, you can delve more deeply into the nuances of your theme, but it's still best to have a single primary theme. You can explore different aspects of that to give your story depth, but don't try to share everything you believe in one story.