Friday, May 6, 2016

8 Tips for Developing a Strong Theme for Your Novel

I’ve read a lot of books over the years. Many of them I’ve forgotten about, or can only remember small details of. Usually I can’t remember the character’s names, sometimes I forget the title or the author, and I most definitely can’t recall specific quotes.

But you know what I can remember? The way the story made me feel.

I’m sure you can identify. We all have our ideas of what makes a good story: an intriguing plot, interesting characters, impressive world-building, brilliant writing. But none of those things matter if the story lacks some kind of theme to bring all of those elements together in one beautiful, cohesive story that makes us feel.

But how do you create a theme? Well, as S.M. Metzler explained in this brilliant post: your story probably already has one. You just need to coax it out. Here’s how:
1. Don't worry about making your theme unique. I know that you want to write something brilliant and new. But here's the problem: There really aren't that many different kinds of themes out there. I can guarantee that whatever you want as your theme has already been done. The idea isn't to come up with a theme nobody's seen before. Good luck with that. No, instead, the idea is to do a theme better than anyone else before you. Clearly that's so much easier.
2. Understand that your story will have more than one theme. I've never read or written a story that only had one theme. I'm not even sure if that's possible. So when all of the possible themes for your story come stampeding toward you, don't panic. Let them all in. Of course, you'll want to narrow them down a bit afterwards by choosing a few main themes, but feel free to let the little ones stay.
3. Pick one or two main themes. You are going to want to focus your energy on only one or two main themes. Trust me. Not only does narrowing it down keep your from going insane, but it really helps streamline the whole process of writing. The themes are the center of your story and you can build outwards from there. Main themes kind of work like those backpack leashes you see tired moms using on their kids: Rather than spending hours chasing after your novel and trying to get it to behave, you attach it it to the theme so that it can't ever get too far away from where you want it. How do you decide where you want it? Read on:
4. Write about what is important to you. Notice that I added "to you" at the end of that sentence. Don't you dare start writing about things that other people deem important. Write what you want to write. It doesn't matter if it's unpopular or overdone or weird or simple. If it's important to you, then run with it. A story can only mean something to readers if it first means something to the author. If you aren't sure what is important to you, here's a good rule of thumb:
5. Write about what scares you. Yep. This is not something that writers want to hear, but I'm saying it anyway. Being a writer means that you need to be somebody who is willing to put your thoughts and emotions on paper. And not the, "I don't like purple," or "Smiling's my favorite" thoughts. I'm talking about the thoughts that scare you. It doesn't necessarily have to be a bad kind of scared. It can be an excited scared or an on-the-brink-of-something-big scared. Or it can just be plain old scared. Whatever makes you feel something deeply: That's what you want to put on paper. This is something I discovered when I wrote Skies of Dripping Gold. The themes are hard ones. I didn't want to put them in there at first. I didn't want people to see that much of my thoughts: The faith struggles, the anger, the fear. But those are all part of me, so I decided to acknowledge that. And you know what? It's the best thing I've ever written. Why? Because it meant something to me. So if you have an idea that you've been holding back because you're afraid of it: Just let it out. If it scares you then you're doing something right.
6. Go deeper. So you have a theme. What is it? Let's use an example. You've decided your theme is going to be, "Dare to become your own person." Okay, that's good. But what's so important about individualism, anyway? Why bother? Consider why some characters would choose to blend in rather than stand out. Think about the consequences of becoming your own person: Can that pursuit turn into selfishness? Look at it from all points of view. Go until you're sure you've seen it all. Once you've reached that point, just keep going. Further up and further in.
7. Connect it to your character. Your main theme should connect to your character on a deep level.  No, don't make the theme define your character. You don't want your character suddenly flipping out because he realizes that he's nothing more than a story prop:
Thankfully, characters and theme often grow up side by side. They want to be together and often find a way to join at the hip without you even trying. If that doesn't happen, then you'll want to go back and see what happened to prevent that natural story flow.
8. Be cool. Despite what you may think, readers are not generally stupid. They can recognize themes fairly well. You don't always have to be winking and nudging, "Did you see that? Riiiight.....there! That's the theme! See. See? Did you see that?!" Themes are supposed to be underlying messages, not sermons in the form of dialogue or a character watching a swiftly flowing river and reflecting on how time waits for nobody. Can we stop with that already? Please?

Remember, your story probably already has a theme. If you have thoughts and emotions, chances are those seeped into your story, perhaps without you knowing it. All you have to do is uncover it and nurture it a bit. That's both insanely easy and frighteningly difficult. But you can do it. I know you can. So go put together a story that matters. Make your readers feel something. Make sure they remember you long after they finished reading your work. 

What theme does your story have? How do you like to handle it? Perhaps you're still working on discovering what your theme is. Let me know what's going on in the comment section below!

Related articles:
The Importance of Asking Why: 4 Questions You Should Ask Yourself as a Writer
Challenging Writers to Create Stories with Meaning 
Be a Writer, Not an Author

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16 comments:

  1. Brilliant post, Hannah!! My current story I'm plotting is about three sisters, so the theme is about a sister's love for one another... except they only realize this in the end, as they hate each other at the start of the novel. :)

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    1. Thanks, Raychel! Glad you liked it. I love stories about sibling love, especially when it's a struggle like what you're hinting at. =) Happy writing!

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  2. Great points, Hannah! The story I'm currently working on has themes of wrestling with love and trust, particularly loving someone you cannot trust. So far it's been pretty interesting to explore and yeah, it's scary when you realize that some of your personal insecurities make their way into your writing. But you're right to say it makes it a lot better too.
    Thanks for the encouragement.

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    1. Wow. That sounds like a tough theme to tackle. Such a neat (not to mention thought-provoking) concept! It seems like it will bring on a lot of feels. Now you have me interested to see how it turns out. Go Emily!

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  3. These are things I need to think about...

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    1. *sigh* Writing seems to require a lot of that. ;-)

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  4. A theme I'm currently working with in my contemporary witches WIP is the idea that more often than not, the person on the other side of the argument isn't evil, they're just another person like you trying to do what they think is right. I'm actually quite in love with my "anti-villain" (aka an antagonist who's of better moral character than the protagonist) and happy with where the story is going. I'll definitely pin this article for reference later!

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

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    1. This is a brilliant concept, Ellie! I love anti-villians, and I think they are perfect for exploring the theme you've chosen. I love stories with grey areas that make you look at both sides of the conflict. Keep up the amazing work!

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  5. These are really terrific tips for creating theme. To be honest, I don't really think of "theme" much, as you say most of the time these ideas insert themselves naturally into my stories. Sometimes the theme is tied into the story question(s) and sometimes it's tied into character arcs. Most of the time there are ideas that I want to share with my audience through the world(s) I've created in my fiction and as you say, these are ideas that are important to me.

    I read on another writer's blog once about knowing what your core values are and making sure that those core values are reflected in the writing that you choose to do. I thought that was a rather profound statement that I never considered before. When I thought about it, I realized that I like to make people think and I want to inspire people to be who they are. Then when I look at my writing I realize that I sort of imply those themes within my written words and I didn't even know I was doing it.

    Anyway, I just want to thank you for giving everyone who reads your blog permission to not judge the theme that you choose to write about and to write from the heart.

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    1. Thank you for this great comment, Alina! That blog post you referenced seems to know what's up. It's so easy to lose yourself in this world. Sometimes we just have to take a step back and find out what we stand for and then focus on standing for it with all of our might. And, as you mentioned, that will come out in our writing.

      It's awesome that your themes have inserted themselves naturally. That is a sign that you are doing something (probably more than one something) right. Keep writing your heart out. Thanks for the encouraging comment!

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  6. It seems that in my stories there are a few themes I end up returning to after years and years. These include death's effect on the survivors, breaking free from parental control, how both loneliness and the lack of it change a person, the public face not reflecting the person inside, how we automatically think of ourselves as the good guys, how we idolize the people we look up to, and going to any length to find out the truth.

    The last one usually lends itself to revolve around one of my favorite protagonist types: the scientist or other expert, which in turn in my mind splits in two categories: in a happier, softer and lighter story, she finds the truth in the end, and has either changed in order to find it or changes her ways after discovering it, e.g. she is a historian who pieces together what happened in a missing period of an important historical figure's life, and avoids making the same mistake that historical figure did. In a bleak, darker and edgier story, finding the truth is a hard journey that breaks her, and then she either can't face the truth or facing the truth shatters her in some way e.g. she is a psychiatrist, she tries her best and almost succeeds but fails to find the humanity inside a serial killer, which makes her give up on how she always insisted there's humanity in every person. The worldview pretty much determines if the expert's ending is happy or not, although ending a dark story on a hopeful note or a light story on a bitter note is possible. Could be interesting, I should maybe try to write short stories of my example historian and psychiatrist with such endings to explore that theme for a bit?

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    1. I really like this idea! I love when dark stories end on a hopeful note and I think the idea of the truth not being what we expect is a neat concept to follow. Exploring it further through a short story is a great idea! As somebody who is always looking for the truth, I can attest to how frustrating it can be to come up with zero answers. I can only imagine how disturbing it would be to find a dismal answer like your imagined psychiatrist. I'd definitely be interested in reading a story about her. Keep up the awesome work!

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  7. Great post! #8 is sooo important. It's my main problem with most Christian movies. >_> If you want to give a sermon, then become a pastor and give a flipping sermon; don't become a filmmaker!! ;D

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  8. I love this article! The part about the story likely already having some sort of theme is totally true. While working on an earlier version of my current WIP, the plot didn't really have a lot of depth. But then I noticed something about the two main characters that eventually became my theme, once I developed it. It still needs work, of course, so this is definitely helpful!

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  9. This is a really helpful post!! I am writing a story that focuses mainly on the themes of prejudice and societal expectations and this really helped me dig into that!! Thank you so much!

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    1. I'm so happy this helped you, Jasmin! I love books that explore societal expectations. Go you!

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