Friday, October 19, 2012

Day 32: Revealing Your Novel's Theme

In the process of writing your novel have you once stopped to ask yourself, "What is the point of all of this?"  I don't mean the point of you spending hours upon hours neglecting house and family, serving up frozen food or takeout and using paper plates so you can avoid any dishes.  I mean have you ever thought about the purpose for telling your story?

Photo Credit: kirstinmckee
You may have started out with a character you cherished and hoped to share with the world, or a scene that haunted you, following your every movement until you'd explored it and found it's resolution, but by now that original idea has developed into a full-fledged novel with character arcs and plot turns and hero's journeys.  You've had this story sleeping in bed beside you, drinking coffee with you, heck, even (or if you're me - especially) taking a shower with you.  You two have hung out together enough that you've discovered there's something deeper and richer behind that flirty little face that first caught your attention.  Can you identify (with a clear, succinct phrase) exactly what that deeper, richer, thematic element of your novel is?

Finding Your Theme
"The proper time to think about theme in your novel is now, as you begin wrapping up your story and are able to draw conclusions about it in the context of the larger world.  As you begin to see theme emerge, you'll be able to go back and more consciously direct the novel toward it in the process of revision, streamlining the story so that the events that take place lead the reader toward thematic meaning" (Joseph Bates, Write Your Novel in 30 Days, page 83).
If you're at the cusp of writing your resolution, yet are still struggling to find your novel's theme, try using the following exercise, called the Theme Spider Worksheet (scroll down to page 273), from Victoria Lynn Schmidt's Book In a Month.  All of the questions posed on the worksheet are great, but for our purposes I think the four main questions you should work on answering are these:
  • Why did you write this story?
  • What is it you like about this story?
  • What do you want your readers to get out of the story?
  • What is the personal message you want this story to convey?
I won't guarantee this for everyone, but I will venture to say that most anyone who is impelled to write a novel will have a "moral to the story" already evident in their plot, even if they weren't intentionally writing with one in mind.  This is because we have read books and learned the natural rhythms that a story should have.  Joseph Bates says it best in Write Your Novel in 30 Days:
"When we start out with a clear character, with clear wants and limitations, and begin putting him in situations that test him as a person, we begin to see theme naturally emerge from the chain of events as a result of our curiosity and questioning as novelists" (page 83). 
Your job now is to browse through your story and figure out exactly what that theme is.

Strengthening Your Theme
Once you've found your theme (or if you've known what theme you want your story to have even before you began your project) there are a few things you can do to make sure your readers can find your theme too.
"Pretend you are a reader of your novel.  First, write a short essay (no more than 500 words) that explores the theme(s) of your novel in progress.  Where do you see evidence of this theme?  Be specific...
"Now revise a minimum of three scenes -- your novel's climax and two others of your choosing -- with a specific and critical eye toward further developing your themes" (Sarah Domet, 90 Days to Your Novel: A Day-by-Day Plan for Outlining & Writing Your Book, Page 248).
Victoria Lynn Schmidt suggests finding at least one scene per Act in which to reinforce your theme, with an additional emphasis in the Resolution portion of your novel.  (Theme Revelation Check - scroll down to page 285).  She says,
"Before you write the resolution, the final piece of your story, make sure you have paid off the theme.  If you haven't, then you need to be prepared to work it into your resolution.  This is where most themes are paid off" (Book in a Month, page 209).
In her book, 90 Days to Your Novel: A Day-by-Day Plan for Outlining & Writing Your Book, Sarah Domet suggests using the climax as the scene in which to act out the theme in a visual format, but the resolution as the scene in which the theme should be clarified or revealed.
 "If the climax dramatizes the themes of your novel, the scene immediately following the climax should underscore or reiterate this theme.  But a word of advice: Don't be too obvious.  That is, your reader can glean your intended message without your protagonist overtly explaining "I have been changed dramatically by the events of the climax, and here's how."  By this point in your novel you've included several scenes that reveal the emotional core of your characters -- and subtlety is often the best path to tread.  Check yourself to make sure you aren't being too heavy-handed in the scene following your climax" (Page 219).
She goes on to support Schmidt's suggestion of infusing other scenes with theme, offering the following examples:
"...Several of your other scenes should deepen the themes in more subtle ways, such as through a character description, the use of a minor character, a particularly illuminating image, a clearly rendered setting or pertinent symbol" (page 248).
Have you ever struggled to find your novel's theme?  Have you ever started a particular work because you had a theme you wanted to make the world aware of?

For more on theme see Martha Alderson's post Theme As a Touchstone For Writers and her excellent video series on Plotting A Novel's Thematic Significance


  1. You know, i love this blog. I love the info you provide. Very inspirational and creative and so encouraging. Please, keep up the great work!

  2. Obviously Day one was posted a long time ago, but I just wanted you to know I am beginning with Day one and working through this day by day. I'll be posting my progress on my blog. I'll be sure to give a shout out to Mommy Authors and also link to each post here!

    Thanks, ladies:)

    1. Talynn, I'm so excited that you're going to do the Book in 30 days! I'm going to be following up on your blog for sure because I'm eager to cheer you on and see if how you end up feeling about the 30 day system. (When I finished it I thought, "Never again," but I definitely got more writing done in those 30 days than I have since).

      Good luck!