Theme is the central idea which controls a literary work. It is the underlying meaning, the aphorism around which the plot and characters coalesce.
Theme can be broad and abstract. Most would say, for example, that the theme of Othello is jealousy. Othello is jealous of Desdemona, Iago is jealous of them both, and so on. This jealousy drives them to wild actions and tragic ends. Each character embodies a slightly different aspect of jealousy, and the plot explores the consequences of jealous behavior.
So, should Shakespeare include in his query, "My theme is jealousy"?
No. Nor should you state your theme so baldly. I really don't need to see the following sentences in any query letter:
- Love conquers all.
- Love heals all wounds.
- Love is blind.
- True love lasts forever.
What is interesting -- or what, at least, has the potential to be interesting -- is the way you explore the theme in your query. Just as the theme can be the unifying principle for your novel, so can it be the organizing principle for your query. (Or synopsis. Or pitch. Think about it after you've read this whole post.) So your goal is not to present the generic version of your theme in a coma-inducing statement, but to illustrate it using specific detail from your novel.
Let's say your theme is love heals all wounds. Your first job is to do a little brainstorming. Get out a sheet of paper. Write the key words from your theme in the center of the page, and draw bubbles around each word. Like so:
And now you begin to probe each part of that statement as it relates to your novel. Look not just for plot and character details which support your theme, but also for details which contradict it.
We'll make up an example to see how this goes. Your story is about Marissa and Jake, who hate each other on page one but fall in love in the end. Along the way, their nemesis Dr. Badboy kidnaps Marissa's elderly but frail grandmother. He forgets to also steal Grandma's medicine cabinet, meaning her health will be in ever greater peril as the plot develops. Jake is the superhero/FBI guy/rogue cop who investigates the case, overcomes Marissa's trust issues from a past cheating bastard boyfriend, and gets shot in Dr. Badboy's lair. Grandma's poodle is the only eyewitness to the crime and plays a key role in the investigation.
We've all seen plots something like this before, right? Marissa has a wounded heart, and she must learn to love again over the course of the plot, hence the theme, love heals all wounds.
But there's more to it than that. Your plot will contain other details supporting the theme -- concrete, specific details -- and we're going to jot them down on our paper. The easiest way to do this is to think of each keyword in the theme one at a time. Ask the journalist's questions of each keyword: who, what, where, why, when, how? For example:
- Love: Who feels love? Is it strong or weak? Does anyone feel hatred? On the first/last page, who feels love or hate?
- Heals: Heals how? Automatically, as aspirin heals a headache? Or behaviorally, as changes in activity can create change in other areas of life? There's other medication in the plot. Hmm. And the villain is named Doctor -- not Mister or His Grace the Duke of Evil.
- All: Oh, really? Are there any exceptions to ALL? Why ALL and not SOME or MOST?
- Wounds: Here's a concrete noun. Everything else has been abstract so far. So can we list actual physical wounds or conditions, as well as psychic trauma? Which are healed and which are unhealed?
As you test the way your novel supports your theme, you'll discover some interesting angles you might not have thought about before. For example, Dr. Badboy, the villain, dies of his wounds. Bot nobody loved him, right? So that supports your theme, and it can be expressed thematically in your plot summary:
No one grieves when the hateful Dr. Badboy dies of his chest wounds, and everyone rejoices when Grandma's insulin shot saves her life.
Okay, not a brilliant sentence, but you get the idea. We have very specific statements containing plot details which support your theme. How about,
As Grandma recovers in the ER, Jake and Marissa join hands, proclaim their mutual love, and find an empty hospital bed in the maternity ward to seal the deal.
(tee hee) Maybe not in those words, but do you see the theme lurking in that sentence, too? Compare these two sentences to,
In the end, Grandma is rescued and Dr. Badboy dies.
Here we lose the sense of wounds, healing, and love which floats just under the surface of the first two sentences. Also, you might want to rethink whether to include this:
Pinky Poodlepiffle, Grandma's beloved dog, is caught in the crossfire and dies in Dr. Badboy's lair.
Because it doesn't support your theme.
You can be bold about this. You can include the words love, heals, all, and wounds -- just not together in a single sentence with nothing else. You can also be more subtle, and use synonyms for these keywords. (You can also brainstorm these synonyms on your bubble map.)
Now that you've examined your theme within the context of this process, can you revise it to get more story specific? Maybe it's not love heals all wounds, but love overcomes what hate creates. If you can generate a more specific and less cliched version of your theme, you might be able to get away with stating it directly in your query. Otherwise, stick to the ideas outlined above and focus on creating a plot summary which supports the theme without stating it in cliched terms.