Thursday, March 12

Day Twelve: Clarify the Theme

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Welcome to Day Twelve of Fiction University’s Month-Long At-Home Revision Workshop. This second stage is all about getting our characters up to speed. We’ll be looking at ways to flesh out our story people, finding the right balance between description, backstory, and infodumping, tightening our POV, and putting the heart and soul into the novel.

If plot is the novel’s skeleton, and characters are the muscle, then theme is its soul. It's what the book is about, and without it, a story can feel shallow at best, pointless at worst. Themes are what keeps readers thinking about the book long after they've put it down.

Today, let’s take a closer look at our themes and see how they can guide us to stronger stories.

1. Identify the Theme(s)

Not every novel will have a theme, so don’t panic if yours is one of them. But even in an action-focused plot, there’s usually something bigger underneath—it’s not just a series of scenes strung together to solve a problem. It could be as basic as “revenge” or “justice” or as complicated as “are we truly human if we perform inhumane acts?” Identifying the underlying concept behind the story can help guide us in our revisions, because we’ll know what the book is “about” on a grander scale. Take a minute and consider:
  • What is the theme (or themes) of this story?
  • Where are there examples of this theme in the novel?
  • Where and how does the theme deepen the character arcs?
  • Where is the theme stated?
  • How does the theme tie into the resolution of the novel?

Have No Theme?

If you answered “I don’t know” to the above questions, and you want to add a greater theme, now is good time to do it. Ask:
  • What larger concepts do you want to explore with your novel?
  • If you had to pick one cliche or adage to describe your novel, what would it be? How might you adapt that as your theme?
  • What are common problems in the novel? Do they point to a theme?
  • What are common character flaws or dreams?

2. Strengthen the Theme(s)

Go through your editorial map (and your answers from step one above) and look for examples that reflect your theme.

Are any of them a stretch or clear only if you know what the events mean?
If so, clarify how and why that scene reflects the theme.

Are there any weak scenes that could be improved by adding a thematic layer? Good spots to look for are any decision-making scenes, scenes when the characters face a consequence for their actions, or scenes involving a moral or ethical dilemma.

Do thematic scenes coincide with major plot points and character growth moments? Not every turning point needs to reflect the theme, but if none do, that’s a red flag the theme doesn’t truly affect the story.

3. Eliminate Competing Themes

For every book that has no theme, you’ll find one with too many themes. While you can have more than one theme (story themes plus character themes), if you find yourself with a long list of what the novel is “about,” odds are it’s trying to do too much and not giving any one concept the attention it deserves. A general rule of thumb: aim for no more than one theme for the story itself, and one theme per major character. If those character themes can fall under the story theme, so much the better. For example, if the story theme is “justice,” then character themes might be, “where’s the line between justice and revenge?” or “how far will you go for a loved one?”

4. Use Your Theme to Guide Your Revisions

One of the nice things about theme is it can help us decide what details we want to use, and what ideas we want to show. For example, if we’re fleshing out our setting, we can use details that show the world and also convey the theme. If the protagonist is looking for justice, we might show examples of the injustice of that world and why this is a noble pursuit. Or we might show examples of other people finding justice to illustrate why the protagonist needs it so badly. If love is the theme, there might be red roses, or hearts, or other details that suggest love scattered about.

Understanding the theme and where it appears in our novels makes it a lot easier to flesh out our settings and our worlds. Tomorrow, we’ll start work on our story environments.

Tomorrow: Deepen the World Building and Setting

New to the At-Home Workshop? Find the current list of revision steps and earlier prep work on the introductory page.
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. Love "Planning your Novel: Ideas and Structure" and saving every one of these self-guided workshops. Each one has fantastic techniques, writing tools, and wisdom I apply against my current wip. Fiction University is my favorite go-to writing resource!

  2. A lot of thanks! Sometimes I really forget what is the theme of my story and is really important like you said even for the revisions :)