One of the most enigmatic (I think) elements of fiction to master on purpose is theme. While most of us can grasp the theme(s) of a published novel, writing theme into our own work can seem daunting or even impossible. However, it is possible to learn. So what is theme?
A theme is a central idea(s) that the author keeps coming back to in their novel or body of work. In English class, we learn that theme might be something like, “Love conquers all” or “disillusionment with the American Dream,” and that isn’t incorrect, but it is overly simplistic. In a video on Tiktok, author Danielle Valentine breaks down theme effectively. Valentine says that in order to write theme for your novel, you must first pose a question to yourself. For example, “How much suffering must a woman endure to become a mother?” Then, you spend the rest of your novel or piece answering that question through your narrative and characters.
When working with theme, one is also working with symbols and motifs. A symbol is an object, sound, person, or the like, that “means” something within the text. Think: Gatsby and Daisy’s green light as a symbol of hope. A symbol becomes a motif when it’s recurring.
One author who is particularly deft at theme is Melissa Broder, the author of The Pisces, Milkfed, and the forthcoming Death Valley, as well as multiple poetry collections. She has also published a collection of essays called So Sad Today and writes online. Like many writers, Broder’s work swirls around similar themes, approached from different angles. In particular, she writes about limerence, spirituality, body image, and mental health.
On a 2018 episode of Otherppl with Brad Listi, a fantastic writing podcast, Melissa Broder poses the question that sparked her idea for her novel The Pisces. Her question was, “Why is a love that just can’t be so much more delicious than a love that can be?” The answer, for her, is limerence. When a person is in a state of limerence, they are not in love with a person – they are in love with the idea of a person. It’s a way to distance themselves from reality and vulnerability.
Throughout the novel The Pisces, main character Lucy avoids her real life. Real life includes a failing thesis project, danger of getting kicked out of graduate school, and the end of a long term relationship. These misfortunes send Lucy on a downward spiral of looking outside herself for fulfillment, which is a pattern of hers. After she punches her ex in the face in a bout of rage, and that door fully closes, Lucy is offered a lifeline by her sister: come to Venice Beach, house and dog sit, and attend an all-expenses paid therapy group for codependents. Lucy agrees to the terms, but quickly falls into her same old patterns even in her new environment. She shirks therapy, neglects the dog, and hunts not for love, but for dopamine hits of false intimacy.
We see the concept of limerence play out in multiple relationships throughout the novel both with men she meets for one night stands and those with whom she has longer relationships. Lucy gets so far gone, so distanced from herself, that she can recognize this exact problem in other people, but not herself. Lucy says about a friend she met in codependent support group: “She could have a harem of a thousand studs, but the truth was there would never be enough to fill her need […] for devotion. [But even if one wanted her to] commit, it would be over instantly” (104.) This is what the reader recognizes about Lucy, but she cannot see within herself.
However, toward the middle of the novel, there is a brief moment where Lucy appears to accept the unconditional, positive love she has with the dog, Dominic. Dominic cannot give her the excitement that a romantic spark can, but he can give her steady companionship and love without bounds. Lucy seemingly recognizes this and gives him back the love he craves. She hits her stride academically as well, attacking her thesis from a new, reinvigorated angle. She even has a big moment of clarity where she thinks,
Maybe I didn’t need someone else to define me, but oh, I still wanted it. How vacuous was I? How empty was I that I needed a border drawn by someone else to tell me who I was? It didn’t even matter whether the person was real, a lover, a new friend, or even a dog. The person could even be imaginary, like the fancy people I saw on the street, who were not themselves imaginary, but became whatever it was I projected onto them. Seeing myself through the eyes of a projection, however uncomfortable the judgment, made me feel safe in a strange way. It was like a box in which to live: a boundary against the greater nothing-ness, to think one knew something about what others thought of you. It was there I could begin and end. And perhaps it was a prison, to have to begin and end, but it was also a relief. This is why the Greeks needed myth: for that boundary, to know where they stood amidst the infinite. (118-119)
But just after, when she has an encounter with a mysterious person who gives her a lot of room to make assumptions and fill in blanks (a codependent’s dream), she becomes obsessed, and plunges further into the depths of self-destruction, breezing past the moment of understanding and dovetailing toward limerence once more. She even narrates that this “love” is “tingled with dependency, like a heroin vibe” (128). This is the beginning of the darkest part of the novel.
When Dominic starts to become sick thanks to Lucy’s neglectfulness in favor of her new attraction, her sister wants to come home to be with the ailing pet. But Lucy has become so dependent on her limerence fog she downplays the illness in order to keep staying at the house alone. The reader can tell throughout the text that Lucy’s new fling is the cause of Dominic being sick, but Lucy is too close to the situation to notice the correlation, or care about it.
Throughout the novel, Broder shows us over and over that Lucy chooses limerence because it gets her high on serotonin, while having to look within and work on herself is daunting and depressing. Over and over, like waves, the narrative shows why a love that can’t be is more delicious than a love that can.
To support the overarching theme in The Pisces, Melissa includes a few reinforcing motifs. The most notable are the empty spaces in Sappho’s work, and the recurrence of emptiness versus fullness. For her dissertation, Lucy theorizes that even though many of Sappho’s words were lost after the poet’s death, we as modern readers should read the “empty spaces” in her poetry as intentional. This thesis puts the reader on a journey of fullness and emptiness with Lucy.Sometimes, the emptiness is physical, like in/on her body: “I have always suspected that it would be good to be a man. Not only have I always wanted to have my own dick – just to walk around feeling that weight between my legs, that power – but I have longed to escape [my womanhood]” (6). Other times the emptiness is physical like landscape: When her relationship with her boyfriend Jamie was good, they visited lakes and oceans and rivers and waterfalls together. When the relationship got stale, they visited deserts. (8). Depression manifests itself as empty and something that can be filled with food, like a Three Musketeers. Lucy also finds solace in shopping, or going from not having to having: “In acquisition […] there is beauty” (52).
Having begun her writing career as a poet, Broder’s prose is unmatched. While her stories may not be for everyone, she is an expert at cadence and word choice, and weaves the threads of her themes like a master seamstress throughout her work, with no stitch left behind. Her second novel, Milkfed, explores overlapping themes with The Pisces from different angles. Her question for Milkfed was, “How real is anyone we fall in love with?” and I highly recommend checking out that novel as well so you can work your way through the themes on your own and see how theme adds an extra layer to your reading, and see what you can take with you for your own work.
Another author who both writes beautifully and is adept at theme is Nina Lacour, who writes for all ages from picture books to Adult. Yerba Buena is a gorgeous novel that explores trauma and healing through the characters of Emeli and Sara, two young women who have gone through similar traumas despite their very different backgrounds, and how those traumas have affected their lives in the aftermath. While Lacour worked on this novel for about a decade between other projects, it is cohesive and tight. It’s clear while reading that she knows exactly what her themes are, and knows her characters inside out. Her Young Adult novels are also excellently crafted, and I highly recommend them (I specifically recommend Everything Leads to You and Printz winner We Are Okay).
We first meet Sara and Emilie in their teen years before they meet each other. Very quickly we find out that each young woman has experienced a tragedy that will always be with them. For Sara, it’s losing her best friend and first girlfriend, Annie, to drugs, the same kind that killed her mother. Throughout the novel, the trauma of their deaths haunts her as she searches for a new life for herself and grapples with those she had to leave behind. Emilie’s tragedy is the overdose of her sister Collette. Emily is a caretaker, and works hard to keep everything together for everyone else, while inside she falls apart. Though Collette survives, Emilie’s personal growth is stunted, the pain of the past keeping her mind locked in place while her body moves into adulthood.
Emilie and Sara spend part of the novel dancing in circles around each other, but eventually they do meet and that’s when each of their worlds opens up like a rose in summer time. The women have the chance to experience life together, if only they can open up to each other and see not only how much they have in common, but how much they’ve healed. The question becomes, will Sara and Emilie allow trauma to stand in the way of their love?
Throughout her novel, Lacour writes about healing, though that word is rarely, if ever, used. Healing in the novel is seen through the motif of the yerba buena plant, also known as the “good herb,” as well as the color green which can be seen as an extension of the plant, as well as an extension of healing, and the search for it. Emily wears green clothes, displays green books in her home, and uses green tile in her home renovation projects. As a florist her bouquets and arrangements are full of greenery, which all represent and track her journey of growth. Finally, a sub theme or motif in the novel is beauty in the ordinary. The more they heal, the more beauty that surrounds them. The novel luxuriates in food, flowers, drinks, and home decor. In different ways, Emilie and Sara search for the beauty they were missing as children, and live for the beautiful moments they can incorporate into their adult lives.
Toward the end, Emilie plants Yerba Buena at her first true home, a sign that the healing has finally taken true form. In the beginning of the novel, Yerba Buena is described as a “fantasy.” But by the end, the narrator says, “The Yerba Buena took root,” (288), meaning, the healing took root. This coincides with Emilie being able to truly move on from her trauma and live in the beautiful world she longs for.
Like Broder, Lacour’s themes are expanded upon meticulously, never forgotten, dropped, or underutilized. Not only are the themes clear and easy to understand, but her prose is flowery when necessary, and understated when suitable. In this way, her novel as a whole is written to mirror the themes themselves. I am so excited to see where Nina goes next, and if she chooses to explore similar or different themes and motifs.
As a less seasoned writer, it can be hard to even conceive of making this all as effortless as Melissa and Nina have made it seem. But that’s why I love Danielle Valentine’s idea of posing a question and answering that question from different angles. Perhaps, during the drafting process, it would be beneficial to do this exercise and see what you come up with, in order to deepen your plot, and sprinkle in motif in organic ways that enrich the story rather than feel forced. I guarantee with each draft, it will feel less and less planted and more and more like you are a creative genius who writes and thinks effortlessly. How do you approach themes in your work? What authors do you find to be experts in this aspect of writing?