Writers tend to talk about theme less than they talk about characters, plot, and even setting. When theme does come up, it's usually with fiction. Yet identifying a theme can even help in writing powerful nonfiction.
Christine Liu-Perkins, author of At Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui, says, “My book is about a set of 2,100-year-old tombs in China that had over 3,000 well-preserved artifacts, including the body of a woman. I decided to write about the tombs as a time capsule, the various artifacts revealing what life was like during that period. Coming up with a theme really helped me develop the focus and content for my nonfiction book, and also helped in pitching my proposal to the publisher.”
Shirley Raye Redmond gives another example. “Before writing my first draft of Blind Tom: The Horse Who Helped Build theGreat Railroad (Mountain Press Publishing), I narrowed the focus of my story and identified my story theme by answering the following questions as thoroughly as possible: who, what, when, where, how and why? I then abbreviated my answers so they fit concisely on an index card. On the back of the card, I wrote my theme statement: With perseverance, ordinary people (and even a blind horse) can play important roles in shaping major historical events. I kept my ‘focus card’ where I could see it as I drafted—and later refined—my story.”
For my fictionalized biography of Olympic runner Jesse Owens, I considered the various lessons of his life in order to focus the book. Because he overcame ill health, racism, poverty and a poor education to become one of the greatest athletes the world has known, a theme quickly presented itself: Suffering can make you stronger, if you face it with courage and determination.
With this in mind, I chose to open the book when Jesse was five, and his mother cut a growth from his chest with a knife. I ended the chapter with his father saying, “If he survived that pain, he’ll survive anything life has to offer. Pain won’t mean nothing to him now.” Jesse shows that spirit again and again throughout Jesse Owens: Young Record Breaker (Simon & Schuster), written under the name M. M. Eboch. Identifying that theme helped me craft a dramatic story, and may even inspire kids to tackle their greatest challenges.
In your theme, you can find the heart of your story. It’s your chance to share what you believe about the world, so take the time to identify and clarify your theme, and make sure your story supports it. Through your messages, you may influence children, and perhaps even change lives.
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