Theme: To Choose or Not to Choose…

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Every writer is ultimately asked:

“What’s your book about?”

“Oh, it’s about this guy who kills a store clerk and then tries to hide from the police.” The recipient of this information will give a nod of the head and then ask:

“Yeah, but what’s your book about?” This is the point where the writer suddenly has no words. Why?

It all comes down to theme. It’s the difference between writing a book that has a lot of plot: bombs going off, people chasing other people, innumerable twists and turns, and reading a book that lasts in the mind of the reader beyond the ten minutes after the book is finished. If you look up any of the cheat sheets like SparkNotes, there is always a treatment about the theme of a book. Some are very broad, like it’s about the forces of good vs. evil. Note: most books are in some way. If one were to write the story I suggested above (I haven’t) one theme I might suggest is that the story concerns how superficial facts are often taken as gospel without looking to the root causes. The perpetrator’s guilt is assured by the public because they simply read the initial facts in the newspaper. It’s still very broad, but it now speaks to a dire societal tendency. Now the book will become an indictment on how the forces of criminal justice and public media operate. The resonance of the book will carry much farther because it’s about something other than how the character ducks the police or the vigilantes at every turn.

Some writers go in with certain themes in mind; others just get the story down on paper first. Either way works, and I’ve used both approaches. In some ways knowing your theme from the beginning is an advantage because you can bear it in mind as you write, and seize the opportunity in the moment to strengthen the ties to your theme. But, here’s the really cool part. If you just sat and wrote from page one to page three hundred with no thought as to what your story is about beyond its characters and plots, you will have subconsciously introduced theme or themes into your story. That’s why revision can be so much fun. Put the finished novel away for a month and then sit down quietly and read it from start to finish. Read it as a writer, and look for what surfaces. In one of my novels I did just that. I told the story of a boy who goes through several traumatic incidents as he tries to deal with his mother’s murder. On reflection, I realized that I had introduced themes of social injustice, racism, and bullying into it with no forethought at all. On revision (so many revisions, including rewriting the entire novel in third from first person) I underscored these issues and strengthened passages with backstory, dialogue, narrative, and plot. The story that emerged was so much better than the first draft, or even the second and third.

One piece of advice: the literary approach to writing dwells significantly on character and theme, but don’t worry about this. Just write. If you have a theme, great, if you don’t, then just get the whole thing down first. It’s my personal belief that it’s possible to achieve a balance between literary and mainstream novel writing. Dan Brown is often accused of writing plot boilers, but if you really look at his novels, he deals with some very substantial themes like the subjugation of women and overpopulation.

To borrow a familiar iconic quote: if you build it, they will come. In writing, if you write it, the theme will come.

Happy writing!

© Vectorchef | - Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo

© Vectorchef | – Character Boy Write Letter Theme Elements Photo

A picture is worth…



As writers, we already possess an active (if not over-active) imagination. Often, the images in our heads are hazy, and we can’t quite glimpse the sharp details when it comes time to describe a person or a place in the narrative. This is especially true in the case of authors who dabble in novels with world building or historic fiction. When I was writing about 1940s Russia, it was invaluable that I found photographs of Moscow, the uniforms the military wore, the cars they drove, the weapons they used – the internet and sites like Pinterest are visual encyclopedias that lend an air of authenticity to our descriptive abilities.

Later, when I turned to writing fantasy, I found it was like trying to describe something I was seeing but without glasses, the images were there, but they were blurry. It was like having a hankering for steak when the aroma from the bar-b-que comes your way. You smell it, you can almost taste it, but you can’t quite describe it – is it a London broil or a thick Porterhouse, a strip steak or a ribeye? The compulsion is to run outside so you can see it to describe it in a way that matches your imagination. So, I turned to imagery to boost my ability to describe what I was thinking. We’re taught to study other writers for craft. Why? So we can copy what they do and, hopefully, improve our own craft by seeing if their methodology compliments our own natural writing abilities. Images for everything are out there. At first, I found myself thinking it was a cheat in some way. I got over myself.

My thirst for imagery was slated in two ways. First, was by studying real people to see if they hit the mark by congealing what I was thinking into something flesh and blood. The first time this happened to me was a shock. I had written the character of Victoria Heath, a young archaeologist. I knew her intimately, but only had a sense of what she looked like. It wasn’t completely necessary for the story, but I wanted to know. One evening, I went to see the movie Julie and Julia. Amy Adams was the protagonist of the story and played the part of Julie who decided to write a blog by cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s groundbreaking cookbooks. There was one scene in the movie where Amy Adams sat in her cubicle at work, wearing glasses, and talking on the phone. A voice inside my head screamed: “Oh my God! That’s Victoria Heath!” I checked myself first to make certain I hadn’t actually screamed that out. I had not, thankfully. But, from that moment on, I had a very clear idea of who my character was, she was now complete in my mind.

Victoria Heath

When it came to fantasy imagery, it was a little tougher, because the stuff I was writing about didn’t really exist. I found artists, especially fantasy artists and photographers, the most wonderful, if unwitting, collaborators. Again, I had the fuzzy images in my head of what my characters and settings looked like. I found websites – Pinterest, of course, and places like Deviant Art to have massive collections of the most imaginative people. I was in awe of their ability to render such fantastical images in the form of visual art. We use words, they use canvas, graphic arts programs, and color – it’s like we speak English and they speak French, but we both understand what it means to be kissed. So, I would peruse these sites for hours, and so often find a drawing or a painting or a photograph that would illustrate so beautifully what I was thinking and imagining. I could take whatever part I wanted to use and describe it in words the way a sculptor carves a statue from looking at a model.

Just by way of some examples:

In my novel, Alfheim, I had an image of massive trees for an elfin realm – even California Redwoods wouldn’t have served. I found this:

Inspiration for The Primal Trees

The art is heavily Asian in flavor, which I didn’t use, but the other elements were there, the diameter of the trees, the circular stairways, and the deep, dark forest tonal qualities.

Later on, my characters traveled to a very secret place, my description might not have been so rich without these:

Path to Slaine

Path to the Sword 3

Then there was costuming. It was wonderful seeing the textures, and the colors, and the styling:

Inspiration for Aenya's Wedding Outfit

I imagined forests lit by thousands of fireflies, and sure enough, an artist had depicted the very image to compliment what I was dreaming of:


And lastly, for my central female character – a fairy creature, I looked at the current slate of young actors. And there she was, the perfect embodiment of the girl I pictured.

Chloe Grace Moretz

Chloe Grace Moretz

We often listen to music to help set a mood. Pictures can do that, also. As I mentioned in a previous post on ‘what if’, images can have the same effect, especially when you encounter one that reminds you of your own imaginings and then say ‘what if’ or ‘what about’. Descriptions might open in ways you hadn’t thought of. Try it, you might like it.