Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Theme and Why It's Important

Readers remember some novels long after they read them, and one of reasons is the theme or, in Christian fiction, the message that the story leaves with the reader. When working on your novel, ask yourself these questions: What will happen, and why does it matter? What will the characters learn and how will they grow? How will this novel make a difference in a reader’s life? If your story does not make a difference in your character's life, if it doesn't matter, then why write it? How can it serve the reader?

Consider first non-fiction. Can you imagine reading a book that didn’t have a point. Non-fiction focuses on a topic or theme. It has a purpose. Fiction is no different. Your purpose could be to point out the foibles of the human condition. It could be to dramatize how love can cause a mother to give her life for their child. A novel can be a story that focuses on good verses evil and dramatize the power of good. A novel can show the power of love. It can illustrate how we are not alone, that others share our fears, worries, or sinfulness. It can emphasize the damage gossip can cause, or how telling a line is like a spider's web that keeps growing and becomes more entangled.

When a novelist begins to write a book, he has an idea. It may begin with a plot or characterization, then action and maybe settting, but if it doesn’t have direction or purpose, it falls flat. Think of Gone With The Wind without the backdrop of the Civil War. How long would the novel be remembered?

As an author of Christian fiction, my purpose is focused on a Bible verse that sums up a major idea in the book. Proverbs 16: 9 reads: In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. A book with this focus might be about someone who has made a life plan---a career, a goal, success, fame, an accomplishment--—but things happen, and the character realizes to reach the goal, he may have to give up something equally important. He must make choices and weigh decisions. As he mulls over this problem, he might realize that the Lord has plans for him far beyond his understanding. And the God’s plans meet his need and not his want. The struggle between needs and wants is a lesson we all must learn.

Developing the theme can be done in many ways. Give characters the situation that bring the struggle to life. Create a subplot that also demonstrates the battle of making wise choices and the influence of the Lord or the lack of influence and what that means to the characters involved. Create backstory that brings this theme to life and show how it affects the present in a positive or negative way. Devise a setting that pulls at the issue, the guides the character into making bad choices so that he suffers the repercussion of taking the wrong path. Create a tempting choice at one end of the road and a less attractive option in the other and follow the struggle of a character to make the right decision.

Theme cannot be blatant. It must weave through your novel like a fine golden thread woven in a tapestry. It adds beauty and meaning but doesn’t jar or destroy the total design. Theme will be seen as the character journeys from the beginning to the end and will impact the depth and quality of the novel.

I know this works because of reader mail. Letter after letter reveals how my novels have made a difference in someone’s life. The readers tell me what they learned about themselves or about someone else. They tell me how they found an answer to a question or how they realize they need to ask questions about their life. They walk away with something that has made a difference.

Though you might not write Christian fiction, you can, writing any genre, sum up in a sentence what the major theme or purpose of your novel seems to be---good wins over evil, love is worth fighting for, lies tangle lives, gossip begets gossip, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and laughter can heal. You can think of many more. These themes work for romance, thriller, women’s fiction, western, or any genre.

When you begin your novel, ask what you want the reader to take away when she finishes. If you can’t answer the question, this could be the reason your story hasn’t made an impact on an agent or editor. It may be why a reader enjoys it for the moment and can’t remember the title or what it was about a week later. Write so that you make an impact on your readers, and you will have written a memorable story that makes a difference in their lives.


Faithful said...

Thanks. I'll listen to your advice :)

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

You're welcome. Glad you found it helpful.


Lee Ee Leen said...

thank you

You have written a very pertinent article. theme tends to get glossed over in literary and popular fiction, in favour of character and plot.


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks, Lee Ee - It's nice to know I've provided some food for thought to other writers.

Wishing you new year's blessings.

Carla Gade said...

Another great post, Gail. I am very much a theme person. It helps me remember good books and helps me stay focused on things I'm writing.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Thanks, Carla. Glad you enjoy the posts and hopefully it's helpful to others too. I so often wish when I first started writing that I had places to go to get published author's techniques and methods of creating stories. I learn so much from other's approaches and still continue to hone my craft despite authoring 43 novels.


Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

How do you "find" theme?

I have a story I'm telling "Just because I have to" (I'm currently trying to work it out of the episodic feel you warn about in another post-- thank you for that, BTW, it was a useful wakeup call), and don't know if I could give a single theme.

I'm beginning to think that's why I'm having such a difficult time streamlining and wrapping up the revisions.

Any advice (or a post I missed that addresses this)?


Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Amy Jane - That's a great question. I think I'll do my next blog on that topic. So I hope you've subscribed to getting a notice when a new article is on the blog. I'll title it What Is Theme.

Thanks for asking.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Yup, I do. Looking forward to it. ;o)