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Wednesday, October 11

Day Eleven: Idea to Novel Workshop: Finding Your Theme

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Welcome to Day Eleven of Fiction University’s At-Home Workshop: Idea to Novel in 31 Days. The first twelve days will focus on developing the story and getting all the pieces in place so we can more easily plot the entire novel.

Today, we’re looking at the theme.

What’s Your Theme?


We often think of theme as this big literary thing lurking at the edges of our work—the stuff of English classes and literary novels, not something that applies to commercial fiction. But theme is really just the underlying element that connects all the pieces of a novel together. Like romance is about love, horror is about fear, mysteries are about justice.

Theme is the soul of the novel.

Theme deepens the story and makes it resonate with readers. A great book is about something, and that’s never just the plot mechanics.

Why theme is important:
Themes are universal, which helps readers connect to the novel on an intimate or profound level. Readers might not even consciously pick up on it, but by the end of the novel, they’ll feel like the book was about more than just the plot. From a technical standpoint, theme is another way of adding structure to our writing so when we have to decide between the protagonist doing A or B, we can see which one illustrates the theme better. That can connect to previous scenes, and lay the groundwork for future scenes. When we describe settings, details, or actions, we can consider words and imagery that reflect the theme in some way. While we don’t have to connect everything to the theme, it can be a useful tool in weeding out what’s unnecessary and what’s worth keeping.

For pantsers: If you’re the type of writer who doesn’t want to know how a novel will turn out before you start writing it, theme might be the guiding light you’ll love--a structure without outlines, and a guide that lets you be as spontaneous as you want.

Take a look at some of your favorite novels—especially the best sellers. These are the types of novels often criticized for not being “literary” enough, despite the millions of readers who love them. And a book millions of readers love is doing something right, even if it’s not your type of book.

Jurassic Park is just a novel about dinosaurs that get loose and eat people, right? But look closer and you’ll see the themes all throughout the novel: Should humans play God with science? Are there lines we shouldn’t cross just because we can? Should the past remain in the past? Serious, meaty topics explored using something most people loved as a child—dinosaurs. The plot makes the themes accessible.

Explore possible themes for your novel:

1. What larger concepts do you want to explore with your novel?

2. If you had to pick one cliché or adage to describe your novel, what would it be? How might you adapt that as your theme?

3. What are common problems in the novel? Do they point to a theme?

4. What are common character flaws or dreams?

If you’re unsure what the theme of your novel is, try thinking about what the novel is about on a larger, emotional scale. Not the details of the plot, or the character with the problem, but the general emotion the plot will help illustrate. Determine what about that concept (love, fear, etc.) is being explored. That’s probably the theme.

EXERCISE: State your theme and describe how you might illustrate that in the novel.


Write down the theme of your novel. If there are any character themes, write those down as well. Be as specific or as vague as you need to at this stage. If you have only a general idea so far, that’s okay. You can always refine it later.

Those following along with the PYN book: Workshop Four goes into more extensive detail on developing your theme, with more exercises and tips on finding the deeper meaning in your story.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at choosing and developing a setting.

Follow along at home with the book, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure. Get more brainstorming questions and things to think about, in-depth articles, and clear examples of every step from idea to novel.

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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, your step-by-step guide to revising a novel, and her Skill Builders Series, Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), and Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means).   
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