Sunday, August 16, 2015

Does A Novel Need A Theme?

Do you need a theme for your novel?

If you want to simply get readers to turn the pages, no.

But if you want readers to remember your novel and recommend it to all their friends, yes. If you want your novel to potentially cross over the threshold into that rare category of entertainment novels that may one day be considered significant or even a work of art, absolutely.

Let's break it down. First, the word theme may seem off-putting and even pretentious. (It does to me.) But what we're really talking about is making sure that your novel has intelligence and some lasting ideas that people will remember long after they've forgotten most of the plot.

To illustrate, let's look at a page-turner novel with no real theme.

Here's the plot: The story opens late at night. There's an isolated country house. It's rented by a single woman who has two foster kids, young boys, two and three years old. A man turns up outside the house, lurking in the shadows, peeking into the window of the woman's bedroom. He's holding some kind of large carpenter's auger. After he's satisfied that the woman is asleep, he moves over to another bedroom window where the boys are sleeping, slides up the window, and crawls inside, carefully lifting the auger through the opening so it doesn't make any noise.

Do I have your attention? Will you turn the page? Probably. One, we worry about the boys and the woman. Two, we don't know what the auger is for, and that rivets our attention as our imagination roams through a plethora of horrible ideas.

But while a little bit of storytelling technique can help you craft a page-turner plot, and while readers may race all the way through the story, if the novel doesn't have some larger, intelligent theme, the reader may well get to the end to see what happens, then close the book and completely forget about it over the next day or two.

But what if the writer adds some intelligence and depth?

Let's say there's a detective in the picture, a man who's been a cop for 25 years. This cop is tormented because his kid brother was staying in his home 15 years ago and was murdered by a home invader. (And maybe the murder involved a carpenter's auger.) What made it worse was that the cop was home at the time, passed out on the couch having fallen off the wagon for just that one night after being sober for 10 years. The cop, of course, blames himself for his brother's death. The cop knows that he can never make it better, but perhaps he can catch the killer and spare someone else's life.

We've added the themes of guilt and the pursuit of redemption. This moves the book away from a simple page-turner to a page-turner with something more.

Of course, we can go further. Maybe the cop has tracked the killer to this woman's house and he sees the man enter the boy's bedroom window. He wanted to chase after, but he's paralyzed by what he saw, a glimpse of the man's face, a man who very much looks like...

You see the possibilities...

Construct your punchy plot with its can't-look-away scenes. Then add an intelligent theme or two to make it a novel with much more.


  1. What if the cop comes to empathize with the auger man? ;)

    1. Hey Ben,
      Now I know why your novel The Blackguard was so entertaining. You have a truly twisted mind!