Young Writers Society
Themes in Reviews
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Wed Jan 18, 2023 12:44 pm
What is a theme? Some common examples people might give of themes are alienation / loneliness, social class, love or loyalty. They are the values, emotions, topics, or messages being conveyed by a short story, novel or poem.
Talking about themes in a review can be super helpful to the author. For poetry, the theme is often the main reason for writing the work in the first place. Think about Shakespeare’s numerous sonnets about why time is scary or why it doesn’t matter if a lover is beautiful. They wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t had the thought of those themes, probably. When it comes to prose, themes can also be helpful, because everyone wants to know what they are ‘saying’ with their work, what the underlying message could be even if they don’t start of consciously trying to construct one.
The bottom line is a lot of the creative process is unconscious, and it can be helpful to make it more explicit through the outsider perspective of a reader – that means you! Even if the writer doesn’t start out having a theme, prompting them to think of one still helps them develop their story. It might inspire them to structure their work when revising. It helps in figuring out what’s important to the meaning of the work, and what they can cut out in edits. Finally, it’s also helpful to you as a reviewer, because it gives your review a ‘big picture’ opening to work off of. That’s helpful if you’re a reviewer (like me) who struggles to start the first sentence.
Sometimes the theme of a work just jumps out at you. You think about it immediately as you are reading it. One example of stories that work like this would be moral fables and tales, usually written for children. Aesop’s fables like
‘The Wind and the Sun’
come to mind.
Sometimes you might second-guess yourself, or feel like you need to do more digging. One idea is to keep a bullet point list to record your reactions as you go through a work. Referring to this list helps you spot those thematic patterns and also avoids you having to re-read a long work twice. Look for repeated motifs, images or actions. Does a poem begin and end with a reference to the weather? Does a character in a story talk about chess pieces during pivotal moments? Write about what you think those things mean or about how they make you feel, because often authors will have put them there on purpose (and if not, they’ll be delighted to find out that the pattern appeared anyway).
Maybe words like ‘theme’ and ‘message’ and ‘motif’ put you off. Maybe you’ve read that (in)famous joke about the English literature teacher who insists a writer made the curtains blue in a scene to convey how sad he was. While it’s important not to get so carried away with symbolism, oftentimes themes and messages appear in a less arbitrary way. In fact, they can be quite important to the core of a literary work.
Here is an example. Imagine you’re reading a novel about Tomathon, who lives in the fictional village of Bieleyork. Every two chapters or so, Tomathan mentions his old teddy bear which went missing. Just by itself, you might think: hmm, is there a theme of nostalgia here? But maybe Tomathan confronts an old headmistress multiple times in the story, and they are mostly negative confrontations. There are two takeaways here. One is that the teddy bear seems to be more than plain nostalgia, since Tomathan seems to have had quite a negative past. Two is that the lingering presence of thoughts related to the past seem to cloud Tomathan’s mind, reflecting the fact that a major conflict of his is against someone from the past. In this way, themes and how they are represented can be more significant than blue curtains = sad.
Themes don’t always lead to straightforward critique, like a YWS Sandwich structure does. Here are some tips to use them in your review while avoiding rambling or making it spammy:
1. Use quotes and examples. By referring to something specific from the work, you make sure you stick to what the author has actually said rather than wandering off on your own.
2. Don’t make the theme the whole review. Themes work best when they come either at the beginning of the review or at the end, as general impressions that go a little beyond line edits. However, specific critiques are still important.
3. Choose when to discuss themes carefully. For example, when reviewing multiple chapters of a novel, avoid talking about themes in a character introduction chapter or a first chapter, as you don’t have all the data yet. One exception is if you’ve read the later chapters and want to point out a bit of foreshadowing.
4. To make your comments on themes most helpful, try thinking about alternate interpretations. Come up with different themes you guess the writer might have been going for and comment on which ones come across most strongly to you. An author might be going for one kind of story or poem and not another – or they might enjoy having it be ambiguous. Either way, noting stuff like this down in a review is helpful.
Perfect kindness acts without thinking of kindness.
— Lao Tse
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