Let’s say that you are trying to isolate the themes that your fiction deals with.
Two things that might help:
1. It might not be possible to exactly name the theme.
This is quite common. You can say that one of the themes of To Kill a Mockingbird is ‘racism’, but it’s not just racism as a single word — it’s racism/humanity/viewpoints/childhood all blended together in one concept which the language struggles to name. That’s largely why fiction exists — storytelling is a means of communicating about things that analytical language battles, and fails, to contain. To master the writing of fiction, we need to try to stop thinking about it in the way we have been taught, and start treating it for what it is: a unique mode of conveying thought and emotion together. It’s not words telling us stuff in the same way that an essay or article is: it’s words evoking stuff both on and off the page, tropes, archetypes, expectations, idioms, images, all working together to ‘tell us stuff’ in a completely different way.
2. Your work probably has more than one theme.
All great stories have more than one concept/feeling they are trying to communicate. Dickens’ Great Expectations, for example, tells the story of a boy motivated by infatuation to unravel his life’s path and destroy wholesome relationships in pursuit of a phantom passion. So in one sense it’s about that passion, that unrequited love and the power it has over him, and through him, us; but along the way we meet themes of friendship, injustice, revenge, devotion and so forth. Your work — particularly a longer work — will probably have several things going on within it.
One thing you might run into is the burning question ‘But I never put these “themes” into my work, so where is it all coming from?’
A-ha. Key question. It relates back to the above: if fiction is a special way of communicating, one that defies easy definition, then it follows that it is made in a special way — hard to pin down exactly, because ‘pinning things down exactly’ is the task of analytical language, which has finite boundaries.
We’re so used to thinking of certain things in certain ways in this culture. The modern world loves clearly defined dichotomies and tends to use binary thinking — thus we have all grown up with the idea that ‘analytical’ and ‘emotional’ are separate categories. If we wanted to pursue this historically, we could argue that ‘scientific method’ is to blame in the sense that it separates out what it considers ‘analytical observation’ from ‘emotional engagement’ and puts things in neat boxes, or tries to. The scientist is supposed to be aloof, detached, objective, interested only in ‘provable facts’. He or she is supposed to have expunged actual contact with, or emotional subjectivity toward, whatever is being examined. But every well-told story reveals the failings of this approach.
Fiction connects the artificially split ‘halves’ within us and gives us a more unified, a more holistic and a more natural picture.
So when you write a story, it’s coming from somewhere within you where things are not synthetically separated. Expect to find things in your own fiction that you didn’t ‘analytically’ put there. If you can discern something, it’s probably there, even if only in trace form.
It might be something to do with Love, or Death, or Joy, or Despair, or a mixture. Don’t stress over it if you don’t see anything straight away. But by the same token, recognise that discovering these things within your own work will be the key to everything. Finding them, clarifying them and building upon them will take you to heights you never before suspected.