How to write a good book – Post 2. Developing the Themes

Now I will talk about themes, the threads that bind a story together.

As I mentioned in part 1, no single idea will make a complete book. If it’s a good idea, it will spawn more ideas. Let’s assume you have your ten ideas as well as your main idea:

Main idea: Santa’s sleigh breaks down on Christmas Eve

Spawned ideas:
Santa has to hire a van
The hire company has no vans
So he has to hire a tractor
But Rudolph is in a union
The union says Rudolph has to be the driver for Christmas deliveries
So Rudolph has to drive the tractor
But Rudolph is a reindeer
So Santa has to teach a reindeer how to drive with specially made gloves
But Rudolph is also married and his wife won’t let him drive
Santa has to persuade Rudolph’s wife Erma

Now this is all very well but besides a funny story, are you actually saying anything? If the reader wants to hear a joke, they can watch a stand-up comedian or watch a Tom and Jerry cartoon. What they want is something that will completely absorb them. People love to solve puzzles and they very often get bored easily so you need sub plots and themes. This gives them the feeling that something is building behind the scenes and allows them to say, “Ah Ha!” once in a while.

Sub plots

Sub plots are stories within the main story. For instance, here it might be that Rudolph let Erma down last week so she is particularly angry with him. Or perhaps she wants a new TV, in which case, if Santa is going to pay Rudolph triple-time, then it makes everyone’s life easier.

You can see how subplots can vary the intensity of the main flow of the book. They can slow it down, speed it up, provide a break, give you more insight into a character or a situation, or raise or lower tension.

Themes

But even sub plots aren’t enough to keep the attention of most readers and in fact you can end up with a disjointed story.

What you really need is subtle threads running through the story and the sub-plots, to keep the reader’s attention and bind the whole thing together. Themes also serve the purpose of developing the mood of the piece, and if you want the reader to go away at the end of it thinking about your book, it’s your chance to put in a subtle message.

In our Rudolph story we might try a theme like this:

Alcohol is corrupting Lapland (Santa’s traditional home country in the north of Sweden)

You must be very subtle about this, but you might say that some of the elves are secretly stashing bottles of Jack Daniels when they are ordered for a husband’s Christmas present. Later they drink it.

To get an idea how themes work, think of your favourite book and look for the main theme. Here are three examples:

  1. In Harry Potter, one theme is loneliness and isolation. Harry is adopted and lonely as a child.
  2. In Lord of the Rings, pity is one theme that jumps out at me. Both Frodo and Gandalf pity Gollum.
  3. In Blade Runner, illusion is a constant theme. Deckart is trained how to break down the illusion created by some replicants that they are fully human.

Try this exercise with your own favourite book. Then try it with a book you are currently working on.

Now you have to develop this theme.

In Blade Runner for instance, we have the other detective making the little origami figure of the unicorn. Unicorns are mythical so a kind of illusion. But one also inhabits Deckart’s dreams so he starts to doubt his own dreams and whether he is in fact human.

This theme is developed to its ultimate conclusion when Roy Batty doesn’t kill Deckart but dies while releasing a white dove. This says that although Roy knows he is not human, he is in fact more than humane, and in his own way, more human than most humans.

If you watch the film closely, you will find many allusions to illusions: the Japanese girl advert on the side of buildings, the snake scale, the mechanical dolls etc.

Try looking at your favourite book and writing down as many scenes as you can that develop the theme you have identified.

Lastly, do the same exercise with your own story. If you cannot find many scenes, then begin to plan how to include some.

Themes are an opportunity to get your underlying message across; perhaps something about philosophy, religion, politics or human relationships.

The next parts will be:

3. Characterisation

4. Structure

What have been your experiences of writing? Do you agree or disagree with my experiences? Are you working on your very first book and don’t know where to start? Let me know by commenting.

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December Radio cover

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Description

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