Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Is Theme Really Important in my Novel? Part One

Happy Wednesday, my writing friends,

Recently someone asked me to describe the theme of a book I was reading. I tried, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t figure it out. It was foggy, at least to me. This started me thinking about the importance of clearly communicating theme in our stories.

Most great books have obvious themes.

Great Expectations—ambition and self improvement
A Wrinkle in Time—the ultimate triumph of love
Les Miserables—the power of redemption
Pride and Prejudice—well … Jane Austin just comes right out and tells us, doesn’t she.

A well-portrayed theme boosts a book from something to fill an afternoon, to a life-impacting experience. Oh, I’ll never forget how The Robe changed me. There’s a book with a magnificently shown theme.

Let’s figure out what it’s all about, then in following weeks, we’ll look at finding the elusive theme and incorporating it into our stories.

What Theme Is Not
It’s not a preconceived agenda to preach at readers. I once edited a book and every page felt sticky. (Do you know what I mean?) It dripped with the author’s agenda, and I hated the feeling it gave me. Story and character depth were thrown aside, replaced by the author’s desire to teach me something. I resented it.

Preaching in fiction is a big no no. Avoid at all costs!

Two Sides of the Coin
Yet, even though I don’t want to preach, I do want to convey truth. That’s where theme comes in. A theme is the overarching essence of the story. It’s the other side of the coin from the plot.

My latest book, Love Finds You in Glacier Bay, Alaska, (coming out in January—woo hoo!) is about a mail-order nanny who goes to Alaska to help a widowed missionary and his family. That’s the plot side of the coin. The other side (the theme) is: Learning to trust in Christ above self or others.

Both are important. Both race through my mind as I plan a story. For me, it’s impossible to separate them. (We’ll get more into that in the following weeks.)

One Last Word
Like a gift we give our readers, theme surprises. They thought they were just going on a romantic journey, or a suspense ride, or a comedic tour, but along the way, we can give them something even more powerful. A challenge to their thinking. An encouragement to cherish life. A nudge toward forgiveness, peace, action, or who knows what else.

That’s what a well-crafted theme can do. Isn’t writing fun!?

What books or movies do you think have the most clearly defined themes? What’s been your experience with them? 

I’d love to hear.

God bless and happy writing!


Photo credit: <a href="">Randy Son Of Robert</a> via <a href="">photo pin</a> <a href="">cc</a>


  1. I've read lots of good Christian fiction lately with the theme of forgiveness and trust:
    Wish You Were Here by Beth Vogt,
    Journey's Edge by Dora HIers,
    One Imperfect Christmas by Myra Johnson

    In each of these, the theme wasn't blatant or "sticky" (love that description, Ocieanna), but it was woven lightly through the storyline. Looking forward to your next post on theme!

    1. Angie, you're such a sweetheart. Thank you. :-)

      Great post, Ocieanna. I don't enjoy "preachy" stories where the author rams their agenda down your throat, either. Plot and theme should be seamless.

      Looking forward to your next installment, Ocieanna, and I can't wait to read Love Finds You in Glacier Bay, Alaska. My parents live in AK 6 months of the year. :-)

    2. I love it when theme flows naturally. Thanks, Angie and Dora!

  2. I like when the theme is obvious without preaching, and I also like when there's more than one theme. Like redemption and acceptance, for example. One of Sarah Sundin's books from The Wings of Glory series (can't recall which novel; they're all awesome) introduced the phrase "shove off shame." I loved that! Still sticks with me. See that? I recall the theme, and the subtle but great message, more than the story itself. Great post! I look forward to more in your series on themes. :)

    1. I totally know what you mean. I really clear, powerful theme sticks in a good way!

  3. While I can think of several books and movies with incredible themes, the first one that comes to mind is "Star Wars." No, seriously. :-) It's all about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. If ever there was a bad guy the world loved to hate, it was him. And the evil just builds and builds (and I'm only thinking of the originaly trilogy of films)... right up to that breathtaking moment in "Return of the Jedi" when he finally chooses his son over the Emperor. That scene just guts me like a fish every time! A powerful reminder that no one can fall too far to be beyond God's reach. :-)


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