How to Attract an Agent: Theme

As we continue to examine what helps an author’s work to stand out, I’m excited to dive into one of my favorite topics: Theme.

Theme gets a bad reputation sometimes. I’ve heard some authors insist that theme is not important or that their work doesn’t have an identifiable theme. I heartily disagree on both counts. Consider this quote taken from The Editor’s Blog:

Stories that are written well always have a theme. Maybe several. Well-written books are tied with threads and common elements that speak to theme, that allow readers to draw conclusions about life. Poorly written books, with unrelated plot threads, characters, and events, may not have a theme. The story elements may be so far apart that the reader can draw no conclusion about the tale. The story may lack unifying elements and cohesion. But a story that’s not about anything is probably not one readers will remember. It’s probably not one writers want to write. A good theme can be a unifier. An ill-formed theme can make a book incomplete and unsatisfying.

Unsatisfying. Lacking cohesion. Forgettable. I don’t know any author who wants their work described that way! And yet, I think the confusion or hesitancy around establishing a great theme may simply come from a misunderstanding of theme as a concept.

What is theme?

Theme can be defined as the overall message or meaning of the book. It’s the takeaway for the reader, the thing that makes an impact as they’re applying the story to their own life.

Sometimes theme can be equated with a lesson, but I think that’s sort of dangerous actually. Thinking about theme as a lesson can make for a didactic or “preachy” kind of book; it turns a story into a lecture. (Boring!)

Instead, I think it’s helpful to think about theme as the WHY that holds the story together. WHY does this story matter? WHY should readers care?

Theme vs. purpose

Let’s pause for a second to clarify the difference between theme and purpose, because purpose also revolves around a WHY: Why did the author write this book?

An author’s purpose usually falls into one of three main categories: persuade, inform, or entertain. (You may remember the easy acronym from grade school: PIE.) In reality, there are many more sub-purposes, but we'll stick with these for simplicity's sake.

So an author may very easily identify their WHY. They want to tell a silly story about dinosaurs (entertain). They want to write about different kinds of construction equipment (inform). They want to convince readers to brush their teeth (persuade).

All those things are great. But they aren’t theme. Purpose is the “why” for the author. Theme is the “why” for the reader.

Theme as a thread

Theme provides a common thread that stitches through the pages of a book, then reaches out to tie in the reader.

I once received a submission for a cute counting book. As the main character was trying to fall sleep, they began counting things in their room…in the first half. In the second half, the main character started counting something else (which I’ll not name in an effort to respect the author’s privacy).

The author’s purpose remained the same: inform about counting. But the manuscript felt disconnected because the theme switched. In the first half the theme was clearly, “it's helpful to count things in my room as I'm going to sleep.” In the second half, that theme-thread was broken. I think the author was relying on the purpose (inform) to unify the book instead of the theme. Which was a mistake, in my opinion.

In that same Editor’s Blog post above, the writer suggests that readers are naturally wired to look for a theme. They want to know why the author wrote this book (which relates to purpose) and they want to know why it’s important to their life (which is the theme). As readers, we all look for theme without meaning to because we gravitate toward looking for meaning.

Identifying your theme

So, if readers will be looking for your theme, it’s important for you as an author to find it first. That way you can expertly craft the plot and characters around the theme to create a complete, satisfying, memorable story.

Here are three main questions to ask when identifying theme:

1) What do you have to say?

What do you find yourself wanting to talk to friends about? What deep thoughts take hold of you when you’re alone? Find what you're passionate about and infuse it into the theme of your book.

Theme doesn’t have to be some new, hot take or anything. The rest of the elements of your story must be fresh and unique, but theme can be universal. In fact, a universal theme like forgiveness, trust, selflessness, or true love can be very relatable to your reader. Think through what you have to say about relatable topics.

2) What does your character have to say?

Maybe you’re not trying to say anything with this book. But maybe your character is. If you don’t go into your first draft with a certain theme in mind, it’s okay to let one develop through your character’s journey of change.

After you've got an outline or draft down on paper, consider what your main character learns from beginning to end. Did they start out cynical about love, then end up falling in love? Then a theme of "love conquers all" might start to naturally emerge. Did they start out self-absorbed but end up altruistic? Then a theme of “joy in selflessness” might become apparent.

The change in your character can help lead you to the theme in your book because your reader will naturally be learning and growing alongside your main character; they’ll draw conclusions about the character’s responses and apply those conclusions—for better or for worse—to their own situations. As the theme becomes clear through your character, use it to refine your next drafts.

3) What does your genre have to say?

Themes may also develop based on normal expectations within your genre. For example, if you're writing romance, readers expect a happily ever after, so your theme will need to include some variation on the power of love. If you're writing a western, readers expect the character to go through some kind of hardship, so your theme will probably relate to survival somehow.

Again, themes don't need to be unique—the way you express the theme through your story will be unique. So it’s okay to look to general genre themes as you're forming your book’s particular theme. In fact, drawing from established genre themes can help your reader feel grounded and ultimately satisfied. Can you imagine a thriller that didn’t have some kind of fear-based theme? Or a dystopian without a socio-economic theme?

For more on establishing themes—as well as common genre themes—visit this post by book coach Savannah Gilbo.

Thinking about theme like an agent

Theme was one of the first things I looked for when I was assessing queries as an agent. It was always one of the first things I evaluated in client manuscripts. (I may or may not have become a broken record with this line: Your writing should be more than words on a page—that’s content. Your writing should have something to say—that’s theme.)

I think it’s pretty common for agents to obsess a little about theme, and tell you why:

1) Theme matters. Most agents didn't choose their profession for the money (a majority of agents need another source of income). They chose it to make a difference—or rather, to help make books that make a difference. Theme is what makes a difference. It’s what makes a book matter. And agents want to work on books that matter. An agent knows they’re gonna put in a ton of time with no guarantee of making a dime. To take that risk, the book needs to matter to them way beyond the money.

2) Theme is salable. But at the end of the day, the agent does also want to make money for (and in conjunction with) the author. To do that, they need to convince a publisher that this book will sell to readers. That’s theme! Readers care about theme (their “why”), so sales teams care about theme, so editors care about theme, so agents care about theme. A great theme has the power to sell the book because it has the power to connect to the reader.

Here are just a few questions that I used to evaluate theme as an agent, and now as an editor:

1) Is this author the right person to say something about this theme? Readers need to see authenticity and credibility. Just because something needs to be said, doesn’t mean you should be the one to say it. (Especially sensitive subjects!)

2) Is this theme relatable to readers in their intended audience? Readers want themes that they can apply to their lives. Just because something needs to be said, doesn't mean it should be said to everyone. (Kids in particular!)

3) Does the author leave space for the reader to discover the theme? Readers don't want to be preached at. Just because something needs to be said, doesn't mean it needs to be said explicitly. (Show don't tell!)

Ah, theme. What a grand thing to think about—that your words as an author could make a difference in the life of a reader.

Until next time, may your words be filled with life and your life be filled with words.

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