Theme—What’s at the Heart of Your Story

In our exploration of the 12 key pillars of novel construction this year, we’ve first been delving deeply into what I call the four corner pillars—the primary pillars for any novel in any genre that carry the greatest weight of your story.

Earlier in the year I likened structuring a novel to actual building construction and asked you to imagine that you have twelve total pillars that hold up your “roof” and keep your building from collapse. Four of those, though, are the most crucial. Take out a pillar somewhere in the middle of a wall and the building may still stand (for a while . . .). But remove a corner pillar and . . . well, there is immediate devastation.

Novel structure works along those same lines. So far, I’ve presented three of the four corner pillars that are the essential supports for your story, and in the last three months we’ve examined them in depth, and you’ve been given your “inspection checklists” so that you can test your pillars and see how well they hold up your story. Those first three are Concept with a Kicker, Protagonist with a Goal, and Conflict with High Stakes.

We’re now going to explore corner pillar #4: Theme with a Heart.

Hey, What about Plot?

Hmm, I already hear some of you say, “Huh? What about plot? Isn’t plot one of the most important pillars—if not the most important? How can you support a novel without the plot being the key component of the story?”

Good questions.

I don’t consider plot a key corner pillar, and I’ll explain why. And this doesn’t mean I think plot is unimportant; it certainly is essential. A great plot is key to a great story. But it’s not as important as concept. Or a protagonist with a clear goal. Or presenting a theme that is at the heart of your story.

And since we’re going to go into plot next, after theme, let me just say this (and if you need to argue, try to wait until we get into that pillar in a few weeks):

Tension in a story has little to do with plot. Huh?

Plot Is What Happens—That’s All

Plot is all about what happens. Plot is “this happens first, then this happens next.” And on and on until you get to the end of the book. But without concept behind and driving the plot, all you have is a string of (perhaps exciting) scenes.

Without a protagonist with a compelling goal, a plot, in the end, will fail to “hold up” the “house” you are building. It will be pointless to show a bunch of “exciting” things happening without providing the reader with someone to care about, despise, root for, worry over.

Stories are about people (at some point, someplace, in the story). Or, rather, about characters. Maybe your world is populated by animals (Animal Farm, for example) or aliens or robots. As I mentioned in an earlier post, The Art of Racing in the Rain, has a dog for the protagonist (first-person narrative). But let me say this—which is the key: Enzo the dog is one of the most human characters I’ve ever read in a novel, and that’s why readers love that book. The more truly human your protagonist is, the more readers will relate. That character will resonate with him (as I discussed in this post a few weeks back).

Theme Is What It’s All About

Why am I directing you back to all these points we covered? To make my argument for theme being the necessary fourth pillar. Why theme? Some of you might argue that a lot of novels don’t even have a theme—maybe even great novels. Hmm, I will be so daring as to challenge those who say such things and claim “Yes, they do. You just aren’t looking hard enough.”

Here’s what I would say to an author who claims his novel doesn’t have a theme at its heart (well, if it’s a poorly structured novel, it may not. But for argument’s sake, let’s say it’s a great novel). My first question would be: “What’s your novel about?” After the author gives me his answer, which is solely about plot, I would then say: “Now, tell me what your novel is really about.”

Stop for a moment and think. Underneath all the plot layers of various sizes and colors and tastes lies something fundamental. Something at the heart of a story. Ask yourself the above question regarding your work in progress or novel idea or finished novel. Then ask yourself: “What is my novel really about?” without talking about the plot. It may take some digging, but you will arrive at an answer that speaks to theme.

Ask Questions to Get to Your Theme

Think of theme another way. Ask yourself, “Why did I write this novel? What excited me about the idea? What moved me to take this idea and form it into a concept with a kicker? Why do I love my protagonist? What excites me about the conflict in my story and why do all these things matter to me?” And my favorite: “Why am I willing to spend months of my life slaving over this story—what is compelling me to such madness?”

Wow, is this a whole lot of psychoanalysis or what? Do writers really need to grill themselves with all these questions, and do they really have to know the answers? Well, of course not. You don’t have to do anything, if you don’t want to. You may want to write a book completely ignoring and unconcerned with theme. You may be all about plot, thank you, and nothing else. That’s fine; go there.

But I’m going to be a stickler and say that even if you write a novel with that mind-set, if that novel turns out to be any good, there are going to be some themes supporting it. Maybe small ones, but themes nevertheless.

If you can answer those questions, and also answer “What is my story really about?” you will get to the heart of your story—which is your theme.

I’ll leave you pondering all this for now. Until next week . . .

Inspection Checklists:

Inspection Checklist 1-concept with a kicker

Inspection Checklist 2-protagonist with a goal

Inspection Checklist 3-conflict with high stakes

Photo Credit: Alfonsina Blyde » via Compfight cc

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  1. CS,
    I have come to enjoy your articles each week and have look at them as notes to go with the notes I made as I read your book. You have encourage me to look deeper into what I am writing and have helped put things in order.

    I agree with you feeling about the importance of theme. My stories main characters actions are always showing what is going on as they progress towards the end result. None of their actions would mean anything if they weren’t driven by the stories theme. You articles have kept me focused on strengthen my protagonist all showing why the theme is maintain his goal.

    Thanks so much.

  2. I didn’t realize how important theme was. I would say mine boil down to good versus evil with other themes such as religion versus man, man versus creature, etc. in there. Thanks for helping me to make my story clearer in my mind.

  3. Great post. I started out with a personal experience, very tangential to the story, from which my two main characters leapt. The plot came later. The theme of that experience drove the plot. Again, thanks for all you do. Beth Havey

    1. I always start with theme. I’ll be talking about that more this coming month. I am a bit biased, of course. I love theme-driven stories.

  4. Yet another insightful, excellent post. As Beth Havey points out above, themes can give characters their souls, create conflict and force decisions, thus driving the plot. I remember characters from books read long ago, even if I don’t recall the plot.

    I wonder if even the most intricately plotted cozy mystery or action thriller could end up without some level of underlying theme. I may have read one like that before, but if I have, I’ve forgotten it.

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