Theme asks a question. There may be more than one answer, but it makes people think. Read Holes by Louis Sachar for the message about Stanley carrying Zero up the hill (justice, paying debt to oppressed peoples.) Remember not to hit your reader over the head with a moral. Theme needs to be very subtle.
Theme grows out of the tension of asking the hard questions. Theme levels:
- Word choice through repetition and layering of images. Discover some telling moment (maybe in exploratory draft) and it becomes the theme. Theme can impact word choice.
- Revealed at sentence level through careful use of thematic passages—where character or narration questions about impt things. Careful: lightest of hands, tiny touch will do.
- Revealed in structure—characters and objects thematically. Surface story conceals some less-accessible meaning. Martine’s definition: deliberately use another work to illuminate the theme of the story. In her book Tom Finder, Martine uses the opera, The Magic Flute, to reveal her theme. I really recommend this book. It's one that makes the reader think, but it's theme in revealed by structure done with the light hand she recommends.
- As you edit your manuscript, look for the little moments that might reveal what the intention and goal is.
- Why am I compelled to write this book?
- What am I asking of the world?