In chess, the most powerful piece on the board is the queen. She has a place of honor next to the king and has the ability to move in all directions so long as she doesn’t jump pieces. When used in conjunction with other pieces, her power increases as the player strives to best his opponent.
In writing, theme is a lot like that. On its own, the theme of a novel can deliver a powerful punch. But used in conjunction with research, book quality, plot, and characterization? That’s when a massive one-two punch can make a novel stand out so much in a reader’s mind that she wants to buy the next one, then the next and next until she’s a fan of the author.
However, as a novelist sits down to begin writing her novel, she needs to keep two things in mind: what a theme is and is not. A theme is organic. It is not preachy or on the nose. Why the former rather than the latter?
If a theme is preachy, especially one with a faith element, it can be a turn-off. Think about novels you might have read over the past few years. Have there been any that turned you off because of the tone? What about listening to people on television, especially awards shows or news channels? Have you ever felt like they were lecturing you, maybe even shaking their finger at you? Like it or not, that reaction you felt results from a preachy tone, and the last thing you want your reader to feel is that you’re lecturing them on some concept or value that you hold strongly to.
Please understand that I am not saying you shouldn’t convey any values or ideas. What I’m saying is that it’s best to let the themes, which will hold your ideas and values in it, spring forth in an organic way. A theme that comes naturally as the novel progresses enables the reader to think about the ideas conveyed without feeling as if you preached at him.
Okay. So an organically grown theme is critical. How does a novelist deliver that? The best piece of advice I can give is to stop trying so hard regarding theme and instead let it grow organically from the tools already at your disposal: research, characterization, and plot.
Research. A novelist may have had ideas stirring around in his head. He’s done his research on a subject, say, human trafficking. He’s seen how human trafficking is a growing problem, and he weaves what he knows about it into both plot and characterization.
Characterization. Using his research as a basis, the novelist then develops a protagonist who must contend with the impact of human trafficking because he is someone who lost a sister to it and must now find her.
Plot. Using the additional information the novelist has garnered from learning all he can about his character, he then creates a plot that brings the protagonist into direct conflict with the very human traffickers who took his sister.
Suddenly, the novelist realizes something. His novel has not one theme but possibly several. In his novel, themes of the power of family, the love between a brother a sister, and condition that drove his sister toward those who took her may all emerge as themes because the novelist let the them emerge naturally rather than focusing so hard to construct them.
Like the chess player who works her queen in tandem with her other pieces for victory, the writer can emerge victorious as well when a theme naturally comes into being. The trick? Stop trying so hard. Enjoy the journey of creating good characters and plots. You may be surprised at how your power as a writer will increase.
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