Use a light hand with your novel’s theme

There’s a fine line between giving your novel a theme, delivering a message, and just being didactic. I’ll never tell you these things have no place in your book, because many great books have them. But when you do them, you must first of all embed them in an engaging story filled with characters readers care about. And you must handle these elements deftly.

Premise or theme is expressed subtly but consistently.

Here’s another Pixar rule: “Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about till you’re at the end of it.” Which is another way of saying finish your first draft without worrying about theme. Focus on bringing out your theme in the editing.

© Serg Nvns -

© Serg Nvns –

In Writing Fiction for Dummies, Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy identify three aspects a good theme must have: truth, significance, and brevity.

Ideally, you’ll be able to sum up your theme in a single sentence, like “Mercy is greater than Justice” (The Merchant of Venice) or “Loyalty to God is more important than loyalty to the state” (Antigone).

Too often, new writers will blast the theme as if hitting the reader with a sledgehammer. If in your story you want to show the importance of honesty, having someone give the dishonest protagonist a lecture is probably too heavy-handed. The story exists to entertain the reader, not to hold up the premise on a pedestal so you can give a lecture about it. For example, the theme of Antigone is directly expressed in just one line she delivers to Creon. Then in the rest of the play we see the consequences of Creon’s refusal to accept that truth.

Putting the lecture in narrative is right out. Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo could get away with that because their editors didn’t know any better. Great whacking chunks of those manuscripts would never survive the red pen of a modern editor.

Consider instead the subtlety of the dishonest protagonist who seems to get away with his lies but winds up emotionally tortured by his own conscience.

Use metaphors to hint at the theme. Did your protagonist perjure himself? What if he talks with his lawyer in the courthouse rotunda near the statue of blind justice?

Another aspect of not bludgeoning the reader with your theme is that hints to it should be placed throughout the story. It shouldn’t burst out of nowhere all at once. You may not discover your theme until you’ve written the ending. That’s fine.

As you edit, work in at least one hint at the beginning, middle, and end. But don’t force it. Just keep your eyes open for the possibilities. The theme should arise naturally out of what’s already in your book.

Disclosure of Material Connection: The Amazon link above is an affiliate link. This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

For every plant, there must be a payoff

This maxim is best remembered in the words of Anton Chekhov, who gave the advice several times and in different ways, one of which is this:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.—Anton Chekhov

No plant w/out payoff or vice versa.

Whatever the object is, if it seems important to the reader, it had better, at some point, be important to the story. Continue reading

Make subplots integral to the story

We’re still working on the Plot section of the Elements of Fiction Editing Checklist.

Subplots arise organically and make sense as they unfold, not only in light of the ending.

Done right, subplots add richness and depth to a novel. They give us a chance to see characters in different lights and see the results of the plot from different angles. But a subplot that arises out of nowhere for no apparent reason will distract the reader. Having a “now it all makes sense” moment at the very end isn’t a great help, because by that point you may already have lost the reader. Continue reading

Avoid using coincidences to move plot

When you’re escalating the stakes and getting your protagonists into deeper and deeper trouble, a great principle to keep in mind is this one from the “Pixar Rules:”

Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Authors of yore used to employ coincidence all the time. Since many writers are well versed in Dickens and other classics, we sometimes try to use those same ploys. But the coincidence trick is much harder to get away with now. This advice from filmmaker Emma Coats, a former Pixar staffer, puts it in perspective. Continue reading

Use surprise in your story, but realistically

Last time, I noted that stories about characters who never fail can become boring. One of the ways to keep things interesting—in addition to giving your characters the occasional setback—is with unexpected plot turns. Hence this checklist item:

The plot contains elements of surprise.

On the one hand, readers, especially of mysteries, enjoy figuring out the story and predicting the ending. But few readers enjoy books in which they can predict everything. When a critique partner or editor calls your story “predictable,” that’s not a compliment. Continue reading

Escalate the stakes to engage the reader

We noted before that the stakes for the protagonist should be stated early.

In the best stories, though, the stakes will change as the story develops. The stakes get higher—at the outset, the heroine might have a promotion on the line, and by midway through her job, and by the end, her life. Yes, it is permissible to have the plot be life-threatening from the outset, but escalating stakes are a valid plot choice as well, and arguably better, because you get the effect of a roller coaster rather than a runaway train. Continue reading

Story tension doesn’t mean everyone fights

Last time, I noted that tension is one of the key elements that keeps readers turning pages. One mistake new writers make is confusing conflict with tension.

Conflict is opposition—it’s a fight. When the hero wants one thing, and the villain wants the opposite, that’s conflict.

Tension is strain—a stretching, possibly to one’s limit. If the hero is climbing a mountain, his muscles are under tension, and so is the reader if there’s a danger he might fall. But he’s not in conflict—unless someone is trying to stop him.

In other words, conflict involves at least two forces, but tension can involve only one.

Writers can get confused on this point: Continue reading