Is Theme Still Important? Developing Your Novel

Theme is that aspect of writing that your high school English teacher wanted you to be sure to explain in your two-page, single-spaced essay on The Grapes of Wrath. While you were just happy to get through the novel, she apparently wanted you to pull some deep, complex meaning that would in turn not only give you a greater appreciation for a classic American novel, but would enlighten your take on the world in general.

Is theme important to your novel?

Absolutely. Is it something you’d better buckle down and make sure you get right? Not so much. You see, theme, like so many aspects of the novel is already an intricate part of your story before you put one word on paper. As award- winning writer, Nancy Kress says in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing : “It’s impossible to write a story without implying a worldview.” It is one of the reasons you tell the story whether you realize it or not. It is often subtle and rides in our subconscious until we begin to write and often not apparent to us until we are well into the story.

Well what is it exactly? Simply put it is our world view or the central focus of our story. It is apparent throughout our story, a pattern woven into the description of characters and places and the words that these characters speak.

Think of yourself as a photographer. When you are sightseeing, camera in hand, searching for pictures to take while you are vacationing, you don’t take pictures of everything or everyone. You take snapshots, maybe a few, (maybe a few hundred) of the truest expression of your time in Cancun or Chicago. You may snap shots of the sunrise, sunset, or beautiful Lake Michigan. These pictures or snapshots convey a theme whether you realize it or not. They are a reminder to you and those who will see them that the vacation was beautiful, scenic, breathtaking, relaxing.

But what if you instead, went deeper into town and took pictures of the shanties, with their dirt floor and failing rooftops, or the children on the wayside, begging or Chicago’s crime-ridden neighborhoods. It would still be Mexico, it would still be Chicago. But I’m willing to bet that you will convey an entirely different view to those who view your photos. They will see what you show them. They will have a different way of thinking about those places.

The same applies to your story. We all have a world view and the same story can be told a thousand different ways. The way you tell it, the dialogue and the words you choose to describe character and setting all reveal your world view.

Why is theme important in writing fiction?

As you move through the story, it helps you to narrow your focus, and decide which path to take. When you first start writing your novel or short story it may not be apparent. Don’t worry. Don’t push it. Let the story carry you. You may not see a pattern until you come to the end. But as you go back to rewrite, read and edit, you will see that patterns emerging. O.K. Now. it will be easier to edit as you give way to those things that are relevant and cut out those that aren’t–no matter how beautifully written they are.  You will know which snapshots to choose, which are relevant to the effective telling of the story.

Now go and call your old English teacher and tell her you got this.




About Dorcas Graham

I have been a professional writer for more than 20 years; primarily technical writing and freelance journalism. My passion for fiction writing brings me here. Now I have the opportunity to pursue what I love! My debut novel, In Three Days is now available on and I'm happy to share this exciting journey with you. In addition to updates of what's happening, I will also add tidbits of information and writing tips I have learned along the way. I welcome your comments. Enjoy!
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