I just finished reading Becoming, the new best selling memoir by Michelle Obama. (When I say reading, I mean listening. Audiobooks for life. Fist bump.)
This memoir is HUUUUGE. It was only published a month ago and The Associated Press said Becoming is already “among the fastest-selling nonfiction books in history and already among the best-selling political memoirs of all time.” So, you’d expect it to be written well, right?
And it is. It’s got this beautifully profound, reflective tone. It’s insightful and intimate. Being a memoir, it’s quite different from the self-help, how-to books I usually work on, but it taught me something about theme in non-fiction.
What is theme in non-fiction
Theme is a thread that runs throughout a whole book. When done well, the theme relates to every subject and story and piece of advice. It ties everything together.
Becoming is Michelle Obama’s life story growing up on the South Side of Chicago to being the first black First Lady of the United States of America. She runs us through her life, telling all sorts anecdotes including failing a spelling test in second grade, and her feet freezing as she watched her husband’s presidential inauguration parade.
But it’s really about an underprivileged woman asking, “Am I good enough?” as she defies educational, societal, and political expectations. The theme—the underlying story—is “wondering if you’re good enough.”
Sometimes themes are obvious. In Harry Potter, there are goodies fighting baddies, and the main theme is good versus evil. It also has themes of racism and equality. The theme of this post is, I hope, obvious. Its theme is that theme is important!
Other times, the theme of a piece is not so clear. You might feel it but be unable to articulate the ideas. Or it might just wash over you and make you ponder.
Either way, theme works in non-fiction in much the same way as in fiction.
Examples of non-fiction themes
Often these ideas are easiest to understand through examples. Below is a list of non-fiction books and based-on-real-events shows. I’ve noted what they’re about and what their theme is, so you can see the difference.
About: A woman growing up on the South Side of Chicago and becoming the first black First Lady of the United States of America.
Theme: Wondering if you’re good enough.
About: Three black women working at NASA.
Theme: Women dealing with racism in America in the 1960s.
About: People who have had extraordinary success.
Theme: We need support from our environment to be successful.
About: Practical advice to finish your goals
Theme: You can finish your goals if you don’t succumb to perfectionism.
About: How to invest your money.
Theme: You should take control of your finances.
About: A man convicted of murder and the suggestion he is innocent.
Theme: The justice system is flawed.
Why should your book have a theme?
Choosing a theme for your book will be incredibly helpful when writing. INCREDIBLY!
When you’re wondering if you should include that story about the time you found a frog in your mudroom and chased it in and out of winter boots and your favorite black high heels for 20-minutes, you can ask if it fits with your theme. Yes? Great, keep it in. No? Cut it.
When you don’t know what your next chapter should be, ask what the next question is when you talk to someone about your theme.
When you feel like your writing is getting off-track, tie your theme back in to whatever you were talking about. It’ll remind you why you were talking about how they came to design dominoes like that in the first place.
Having a clear theme, whether obvious or subtle, will keep you on track as you plan and write your non-fiction book.
How to find the theme in your non-fiction book idea?
In the next post, we’ll talk about how to find the theme in your non-fiction book idea. Get that post in your inbox by signing up for emails in the space below.
You’ll also get 15 writing tips from today’s top entrepreneurs, including the likes of Marie Forleo and Neil Patel. Exciting stuff!