Monday, March 08, 2021

5 Places to Find Your Novel’s Theme

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Theme is one of the best plotting tools a writer has.

I’ve always been a plot-focused writer, so theme was something I never paid a lot of attention to when I was learning how to write. I didn’t think I needed it, because theme was for literary novels or stories with deep, meaningful messages, not for commercial fiction and good old-fashioned adventures.

Eventually, I realized that was total bunk.

Theme is a highly useful part of any novel, be it a light-hearted romp or a nail-biting adventure. It’s an element that gives greater meaning to the story and turns background fluff into substance.

Theme can tie individual pieces of a story together so they work on multiple levels. Theme allows descriptive details to resonate with a character’s mood, or lets a plot point become a mirror to an internal struggle. Theme makes everything in the story matter more.

And what’s more…

The theme of a novel tells you how to plot that novel.

When I ask writers what they struggle with most, plotting is almost always the number one answer. Coming up with clever problems and fun solutions isn’t easy, and it’s even harder when there’s nothing guiding that plot. You have a “big problem” that you know has to be resolved, but figuring out how that happens can be mystifying. Often, it’s because you know the what of the plot, but not the why, and you pick goals and conflicts based on what sounds cool for the scene, not on what works best for the larger story.

Theme is at the core of the why. It’s why the protagonist is motivated to resolve the plot problem, and why it matters that they do. If the theme is “love conquers all,” then the protagonist probably has faith in love, or needs to develop a faith in it, and that faith (or lack) is behind their motivation for solving the novel’s plot problems. If the theme is “justice,” then you know the need for justice over unjust things will drive your protagonist to act.

You just don’t always know the theme when you start a novel, and that’s okay. Sometimes you need to write the story first to see what the themes are.

Here are five places your theme might be hiding in your novel:

1. Look for theme in the main concept of the idea.

Odds are there’s more to the story you want to tell than a series of plot events, no matter how cool those plot events might be. Perhaps you’re exploring the nature of power, or what it means to be human, or how a good person can do bad things. Whatever it is, there’s something bigger in your idea on a conceptual level. If someone asked you what your story was about, you might even use this concept to describe it.

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

Are there any common elements developing? Can you see a bigger picture connecting them? If not, think about how you might connect them or how they might work together to create a larger idea. Is there something you feel strongly about that might work as a subtle underlying layer to this novel?

(Here’s more with 3 Ways to Deepen Your Novel’s Premise)

2. Look for theme in the cliché you use to describe the novel.

It might sound silly, but clichés are practically theme shorthand. If it sounds like something you’d stitch on a pillow or Grandma has framed on her wall, there’s a good chance it’s your theme. “Love conquers all” is a great theme for a romance novel that explores the struggles a couple goes through to be happy. “You can’t fight city hall” might work for a dystopian that explores the futility of trying to change the way society works. Or you might tweak it and say “you can fight city hall” to show that a small group of people can indeed change the world for the better.

If you had to pick one cliché or adage to describe your novel, what would it be?

Look for places where this theme can be illustrated to flesh out the story. For example, if the theme is love, show moments where “love” makes a difference, even if it’s obliquely. Themes don’t have to bang readers over the head to be effective.

(Here’s more with You Spin Me Round: Making Clichés Work for You)

3. Look for theme in the recurring problems of the novel.

Theme often shows up in the types of problems the characters face, because the lesson the characters need to learn is reflected in the conflicts and issues they have to resolve. Is there a common element to them? Are there similar obstacles or struggles to overcome?

What are the common or recurring problems in the novel?

See if there’s a common thread that could be developed into your theme. For example, if you notice a lot of problems that deal with the protagonist trying to prove something about themselves, then maybe the theme is about being true to who you are, or standing up to those who lack faith in you. Or maybe the theme is about not proving that thing.

(Here’s more with Where Does Your Novel's Conflict Come From?)

4. Look for theme in the character arc.

Character arcs are all about change and growth, and that growth is probably your theme. How the protagonist grows is likely connected to a flaw that must be overcome, which often points to the theme. Look at how that growth is reflected in the story and the challenges the protagonist faces.

How does the protagonist change?

What type of person is the protagonist at the start of the book versus the end of it? For example, if they lack generosity at first, and then become generous by the end, perhaps the theme is related to greed or selfishness. Or maybe they lack confidence and learn to believe in themselves.

(Here’s more with Compelling Character Arcs in 4 Easy Steps)

5. Look for theme in the character’s dreams.

Your protagonist likely has a dream that’s bigger than just resolving the plot problem. Maybe they want to resolve it for a reason that connects to this dream, such as defeating the evil wizard to free their people. It’s possible more than one character has a similar dream, which might indicate this is an underlying theme weaving through the novel.

What are the character’s dreams?

Look for similarities that could hint at a larger theme. For example, if the major characters wish for a life without fear, then overcoming fear might be your theme. Or maybe they’re all pursuing love, or success, or all feel trapped in their lives and long for the ability to make their own choices.

(Here’s more with An Easy Way to Find Your Protagonist’s Goal)

Once you’ve found your theme, use it to deepen your novel by giving greater meaning to your scenes. While not every scene needs to be dripping with theme, even thinking about the bigger picture as you write can influence how you choose to develop those scenes–what details you use to describe the setting, how someone reacts, what happens overall. When faced with choices on what to use or do, think about how it might show the theme and if that will make the scene richer.

A solid theme will guide you as you write and remind you what the novel is about.

And remembering the larger concepts of the story make it a lot easier to know what has to happen, and how the characters will solve their problems. If your theme is “trapped by circumstance,” you’ll know the problems in the novel will be things that trap someone in the story in some way, and getting out of those traps will be goals for the characters. Then all you need to do is come up with the specific details and situations.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your theme. Do you have one? Is it serving your story?

Do you use theme in your novels? Do you plan for it or does it just happen?

*Originally published April 2014 on Writers in the Storm. Last updated March 2021

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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