Developing a Theme


Developing a Theme

Most great novels have a theme, whether intended by the author or deduced by admiring readers is sometimes hard to tell. Theming your novel can enhance its appeal to your readers.

What is a theme?

There is of course the literary definition and the on-line Masterclass is an excellent source on that aspect. But, for me, a theme in a novel works when it gives me a feeling that I have learned something about myself or the world which is deep and true.  It might follow the typical literary themes of courage, death, friendship, revenge, or love but more important than the label is the visceral understanding I experience. In fact, I have finished novels where I know I have been changed even though I have trouble putting into words what I’ve learned.


Naturally, and reasonably, you want to know when I have experienced it to see if you agree with my analysis. I’ll do a short list with a note on how they moved/informed me. But I really want to focus on how to do it.

1984 by George Orwell. Even if it’s hopeless, you can stand up for what you believe.

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Faith requires sacrifice and discipline.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. A blinkered view can distort your life.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. How my life should be (turned out to be completely false but hey, I was ten at the time).

Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow—enough said

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. I can counterfeit the gold and then believe it true.

A theme can’t be force-fed

A novel with a theme can have a powerful and even lasting effect on your reader so of course you want to have one.

But as I have mentioned before, I don’t think it works to decide a priori the path the novel will take. Doing so can, and often does, produce a stilted, forced result which hits the reader over the head with this is the theme, get it?, rather than allowing her to gradually come to understand.

This is where magic comes in

To create a theme, I first think you have to open yourself to the magic lurking in your story.

Writing the first draft. In the original writing, look for the moments where you’re getting the sense of I think there’s something here. But don’t stop to try to figure out what it is, just keep writing. Write and write. Every once and a while, you’ll probably get that same feeling but just note it and keep writing.

It’s important to keep everything at the feeling stage. Don’t try to name it or the theme. Just write as much as you can from that emotion.

Editing the manuscript.  Once the first draft is completed, read it over to identify where that unnamed feeling occurs. Spend some time figuring out what these passages have in common—this is likely where your theme lies.

Strengthening the theme. Now that you understand what the novel means to you, go back over the manuscript to see where you can add or tweak scenes to reinforce the theme in a non-hit-over-the-head way.

So, in short, don’t look for your theme—let it find you.

Multiple Use Scenes


Multiple Use Scenes

In the first draft, it’s common for one scene to serve one purpose. To introduce the main character, for example, or to show an event which complicates the hero’s path. All well and good. And necessary in a first draft. However, as you get into the editing, you want to look for ways to tighten the story and create more depth. One way is to have some scenes do multiple duty.

Multiple scene mash

I want to do an example but without great long passages. So, I will give you a short description of some individual scenes, assuming they are all show.

Separate scenes

Scene one: Lauren is bad-tempered and malicious. She will stop at nothing to get her way.

Scene two: Abby’s mother is in intensive care and Abby tries to get away from work early every day to see her.

Scene three:  Lauren and Abby work in a high pressure work environment with a hard-driving boss.

The amalgam

Lauren tells the boss that Abby is missing deadlines, omitting to mention that Abby’s mother is ill.

Seems pretty simple, but if you do this one scene, you will have established Lauren’s character, Abby’s situation, and the work environment. While you probably need to fill in a bit more than I am depicting, the combination nevertheless provides a much more interesting event than the three separate ones. And may even generate a sub-plot which hadn’t been evident keeping things separate.

Which scenes?

Good question. It will not be as easy or obvious when you are reviewing your own manuscript. Which scenes you combine will depend on the plot. But there are some possibilities:

  • Use of the same setting. If you place the characters often in the same location (e.g. office), you might be able to mash a couple of events into one scene.
  • Repetition of character trait. Sometimes, you have shown what your character is like with more than one secondary character. You can either cut the extra scene or put the secondary types in the same scene so your character can establish himself to all audiences.
  • Too many plot points/too many characters. I put these two together because often a character represents a plot or sub-plot. If you think there are either too many plot points or characters to keep reader interest, either cut out the least important ones or amalgamate them.

A stumbling block

One thing might get in your way as you strive towards a more layered and/or complex version of your novel. You.

Writers have a bad habit of falling in love not only with their story but also with how it is written. Without knowing it, everything becomes Deathless Prose and therefore inviolable.

My advice: Get Over Yourself.

I can hear you saying, “But it’s such a lovely scene—did you see how I brought the analogy full circle?”

Yes, I’m sure that it is but remember that readers do not live on exquisite moments alone. Most want a well-constructed plot with interesting and complex characters and a satisfying ending. Exquisite moments will also be appreciated but in addition to, not instead of, the basics.

(Sorry and as always, this doesn’t apply to works where beauty of language is the main objective.)

In short, this is the time to be ruthless. Cut, amalgamate, rewrite. Be your own Attila the Hun. Put away your ego so that you can dedicate yourself to the service of the story and your reader.

How Do You Know When You’re Finished?


How Do You Know When You’re Finished?

Might seem like a dumb question. You’re finished when you write the last scene. But no, then there’s the editing, rewriting, even reimagining. Okay, so then you’re finished, right?  Well…

Are you really finished?

The problem is, there’s always more to do. One more copy edit would undoubtedly cut out more words which, as I have discussed before, George Orwell thought well of. And maybe I should add more suspense before the climax. Have I really portrayed the hero as fully as is needed?

It can be exhausting and frustrating. To the point that you just want to get it over with.

I get it. Winston Churchill put it well:

Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a joy and an amusement and then it becomes a mistress and then it becomes a tyrant and that last phase is, that just as  you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster.

It’s not uncommon to vacillate between urges to kill the monster and pursuing perfection like an actress addicted to plastic surgery.

Limits of technique and imagination

I’m not sure that this answer fits everyone but it is a rule of thumb that I have found works for me.

I decide I have finished when I reach the limit of my technique and imagination. Which sometimes feel like the same thing.

Let me give you an example.

I was writing a story of a mother (okay, mine) and a daughter (yes) and their fractious relationship. I was trying to present both characters as striving at cross purposes in order to create a situation of fictional conflict rather than just a series of running battles of the no-you-can’t-yes-I-can variety. To do that, I wanted to make both characters, if not sympathetic, then as nuanced as I could.

I tried and tried with the mother and every once in a while, I thought I had her captured. Then she would slip away. To the point that I didn’t actually know if I had achieved my objective. And moreover, I couldn’t think of any more ways to tackle the problem. Perhaps because I hadn’t mastered the craft enough to make it happen. Perhaps because my imagination had been exhausted.

At that point, I decided I had to let it go because I had reached the limit of what I was capable at that time. Even if I wasn’t satisfied and didn’t know if I had achieved what I had hoped for.

Do I have to go to these lengths?

No, of course you don’t have to. It’s your writing after all. But I have found that if I know I have gone to the limit of my abilities in everything I finish, then I can look back on this work from the Olympian heights of The Future and give myself a pass for the clumsy word, the plot hole, or the feeble technique revealed on a later pass. If I haven’t, the rereading is more likely to prompt regret or even embarrassment.  I knew I could have done better and I didn’t.

You may have your own way to know if you’ve finished, but this is how I recognize when to kill the monster.

Orwell and Rule Three


Orwell and Rule Three

In the previous post, I listed Six Rules for Writing  created by George Orwell and focused on why Rule 2 (Never use a long word where a short one will do) is so important for writers. In this post, I want to talk about Rule 3.

Rule Three: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

On the surface, this has a ho-hum, yeah, yeah feeling to it. Sort of like your dentist reminding you to floss. Sure, I’ll do it when I have a minute.

And the ‘always cut it out.’ A bit extreme, surely. Discuss among yourselves.


Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Seems okay, no? Let’s see what happens when you cut words. This bit was 43 words.

Applying Rule 3 to the example

Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Here is the cleaned up version.

Alex hid among the bushes. Hands trembling. Knees weak. He might have to run at any moment but would his legs hold up? He slowed his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.


See what a difference cutting words can make? Tightening up the word count also tightened up the tension. It more closely mimicked Alex’s staccato breathing and thinking. It pulls the reader into the scene more effectively.

The number of words cut wasn’t that great. 43 in the original. 34 in second version. Nine word difference which makes all the difference.

(Although almost 20% of the sentence was cut. That’s a lot over the course of a manuscript.)

Obviously, what and where you cut is a judgement call. For example, Alex is repeating himself when he thinks I can do this. I’ve got this. I decided it was worth leaving both statements as a reflection of the kind of self-talk a person in his situation might do.

Cutting words helps heighten tension in a scene but is effective with all types of writing.

It helps the reading flow for readers. I’m not sure that extra words get in the reader’s way so much as slow her down. Extra words which don’t need to stand in-between her and your exciting climax.

Situations where the Orwell rule 3 might not apply

So, being an enthusiastic proponent of Rule 3, I have discovered that it can be taken too far. An obvious problem is if you cut so much that you confuse the reader.

But I have discovered a penchant which actually hurts the reading. I love to cut thats. I could have written (from above): An obvious problem is if you cut so much you confuse the reader.

The ‘that’ is cut and the sentence is still understandable. However, if you do it too much, the reader is kicked out of the continuous dream. My beta readers reported that, over the course of the novel, they had to reread certain sentences. The grammar was correct but dropping the ‘that’ violated their expectations and made them focus on the language itself rather than the story. A focus which is the writer’s job not the reader’s.

But I’d still say, cut, cut, cut.

Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer


Feedback from a Non-Writer to a Writer

So, this is the post to send to all the non-writer friends and family who read your writing. You want useful feedback but it’s actually hard to get unless they know what you want. Because—

They are readers

You remember the continuous dream. It is the state you want to put readers in. They sink into the world you’ve created and live happily in it. If you’ve done it well, your readers are reacting as if they’re living the story with your characters.

Great for the reader. Bad for the writer. In fact, the more successful you are at creating this dream, the less successful your readers are likely to be in giving the kind of feedback you need.

An example

Your non-writer friend has kindly read your magnum opus.

You: How did you like it?

Reader: Oh, it was great.

You: Thanks, but what did you like about it specifically?

Reader: Well, uh…well, I liked Jillian—I really felt for her.

You: But what about Jillian made you feel for her?

Reader: Well…well…

The reader is focused on how he feels about the story. The writer is focused on how to create the feelings the reader experiences. To give you the most useful feedback, the reader must break out of the continuous dream to notice why you made him feel the way he did and how you did it.

It’s a tough ask.

And not really the reader’s job.

But without this kind of feedback, the most you get are general statements of what the reader liked and didn’t like. Sometimes helpful but often not.

You need more specific instructions.

Note to your non-writer reader

Dear Reader

I really appreciate that you’re taking the time to read my writing. Naturally, I’m very interested in knowing what you think of the story and the characters. But in addition, could I ask you to do a couple of things?

  1. Track your reading. That is, record the page where you put the book down every time you stop.
  2. At what page did you flip to the end to see how many pages were left?
  3. Were there any points where you just kept reading even though you had other things to do? If so, where were they?

Thanks so much. The answers to these questions will help me improve the story.

Analysis of the feedback

Tracking the reading

Where people put the book down can be, but isn’t always, where the interest might be waning. Look at the few pages prior to the stop to see if there is anything which could be improved. Too much description? Lots of talk, no action? A lot of inner dialogue? You might get clues where to tighten up, rewrite, or dump.

Flipping to the end

This often happens around the middle of the book. Knowing exactly where can help you determine if you can move the plot along faster or otherwise help people to get over the hump of the middle.

Had to keep reading

So, your reward. Where this reader couldn’t put the novel down. Take a look at these spots. Do a little basking but then give them a careful read. What made them work? Could you apply this learning to other chunks in the novel to ummph them up?

This isn’t a foolproof way to get the feedback you need but signaling what you want to the non-writer can be useful. I’ve talked more about getting the most from readers’ opinions in another post.