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How to Write a Freaking Cool Novel: Step 2 – The Power of Theme

NOTE: These articles work as a step-by-step guide. To get the most out of them, you should start from the first article in this series.

Now that you have an effective logline written for your novel, it’s time to breath life into your idea by giving it a clearly defined theme. You might be thinking, “Theme? Come on, Craig, I’m not writing one of Aesop’s fables.” To that I say, not so fast. There is a strong argument for theme. Read on to find out more.

Story theme is often a slippery bar of soap. Many writers don’t understand how to use theme as a story strengthening force. Occasionally, I have the privilege of teaching writing workshops. Inevitably when I ask these classes to define theme, they say, “Theme is the moral of the story.” To this I smile quietly to myself.

Theme is devoid of moral. If theme merely meant the moral of the story, I would fear that all we would have to read would be those self-indulgent, preachy books—you know the ones, the stories where the author seems to come through the pages and whack you on the wrist with a schoolmaster’s stick and shout, I hope you’re getting this because my feelings on this subject are more correct than yours.

Luckily this isn’t the case, at least to authors who understand theme.

Since theme is amoral, at my workshops, I like to present a few theme ideas and ask if they are good or bad. Below, I have a 10 examples—some of which are tried and true–along with my opinion on whether they are good or bad themes.

  1. Good always triumphs over evil. Good.
  2. Evil always triumphs over good. Good.
  3. The greatest valor comes from the humblest beginnings.
  4. Being a hit man cankers the soul. Good.
  5. Being a hit man is extremely profitable. Good.
  6. Nice guys always finish last. Good.
  7. Nice guys always finish first. Good.
  8. Highly paid CEOs are evil. Good.
  9. Highly paid CEOs are not always evil. Good.
  10. Artists are honorable and noble. Their crafts should be sought after at all costs. Good.
  11. Artists are worthless scabs who bilk off the system. They should get real jobs. Good.

I’m sure you get the point. Now to the question: why is theme important to your story? Theme is like an amplifier to your novel. Without theme, your story doesn’t say anything. It merely chugs along. It may be intriguing. It may be action packed. It may be full of romance. But it doesn’t say anything. As a writer, theme can help you stay right on message—to borrow a marketing term.

A writer who understands theme asks herself at every phase throughout her story writing journey: How does what I’m writing support my theme? How does this chapter support the theme of nice guys always finish last? How does this sequence support the theme of good always triumphs over evil? How does the ending support the theme of highly paid CEOs are not always evil? How does this character support the theme of artists are honorable and noble. Their crafts should be sought after at all costs?

By putting down a strong theme at the beginning of the process and constantly asking how your story supports that theme, your story gains vitality. Your story has something to say. You might or might not agree ethically with the theme of your story; but your job is to be impartial and let the characters do their thing, all the while making sure that their actions reflect your stonecast theme.

Now its time for me to practice what I preach. I am going to take a logline from the first article and attach it to a theme in this article. Since I am a speculative fiction writer and like humor, I’m going to pick the logline, a plumber battles a pandimentional super demon and its minions. I am going to assign the theme, the greatest valor comes from the humblest beginnings.

Lets see what happens.

I have a plumber. This plumber is going to battle demons from another dimension. My theme says, the greatest valor comes from the humblest beginnings. This means that the plumber should be an everyman. He shouldn’t have a lot of money. He should run a one-man shop. There might be a competitive plumbing outfit that is large, corporate, and arrogant. There might also be another demon battling character. This second character should probably have all the latest state of the art demon battling equipment and bottomless moneybags. My plumber is the underdog. He’s from the humblest beginnings. He’s going to have to fight like a scratching mongoose, but, in the end, his act will show true valor. Based on the theme, I can already build some conflict into this story that supports the idea that, the greatest valor comes from the humblest beginnings.

WARNING: please don’t, as I have already said, confuse theme with the moral of your story. This act is dangerous. Theme should be present, but transparent. There is no greater waste of time than reading a preachy story. Yuck. Don’t get caught in the trap.

Your Assignment
You should have a logline written for your story. It’s time to attach a theme to that logline. Write at least 3 different themes that you feel might fit with your logline then chose the single theme out of your list that you think has the most potency. As you move forward, you will use theme at every turn of your story so make it a good one.

If you want, you can even share your logline and theme combination as a comment to this article. I’m sure other readers would love to see the seeds of your emerging story.

To continue onto the next article, click here.