Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Final Thoughts

I hope this blog series has really helped you evaluate what is working for and against the theme in your novel. To wrap it up, I have a few final thoughts.

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  1. Everyone’s process is different. You may find these ideas easier to explore after you’ve completed your first draft. Or maybe you’re like me and need to write a few thousand words before you can really sit down and work on planning with the theme. Or maybe you are awesome and can do all this ahead of time. Whatever it is, it’s okay.
  2. Be flexible. You might do all this planning, but as you get into the book you realize that your theme is actually something else. That’s ok. Go with it and just do the theme work over for revisions. Don’t lock yourself into a story that isn’t working just because you were positive that the theme was something before you started writing the book.
  3. You can have more than one theme. The book I’m working on now seems to have two themes at the moment. One about community and one about want vs. need. Now, I’m hoping that I can find a theme statement that intertwines the two, but if not that’s okay. You might find yourself with a main theme and then maybe a few sub themes. That’s totally fine and normal and good! Don’t freak out.
  4. Your initial theme work is not going to be super, super deep. With each revision you will go deeper and deeper into the theme and you will find new ways to strengthen it. You may even add a sub theme in the final revision! Don’t worry if you feel like your early theme work is shallow. It probably is. This is what revisions are for.
  5. Theme is important to any book. Any genre. It’s the thing that makes a book stick with you. It is the thing that makes a story timeless. It takes a book from a fun story to something meaningful. It pushes it from like to love. You may need other tools to plan your action book or your mystery book. I’m not saying all you need are the thoughts I’ve laid out here. But you can not write a meaningful book without theme. Please don’t overlook this important step in your writing.

And that’s all I’ve got! I hope this has been helpful and I hope you feel more inspired than confused!

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Happy writing!

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Plot

So, we’ve talked about theme, main character and character arc, side characters, and setting. Now it’s time to talk about plot.

First of all, remember that before tackling your planning with theme, I expect you to already have a general idea of premise and some direction for your book. You may have written a few chapters to get a feel for your world. You may not be a big time plotter. That’s okay. I’m not going to take you through in-depth outlining.

When your using theme to plan your plot, you really use it as more of a checks and balance system. You used your theme to figure out your main character’s arc, and plot is really just how you get your MC from point A to point B in their character arc. How you decide to do that is up to you and I can’t give you a tried and true process. But after giving all your side characters different relationships to the theme, you should be able to see opportunities for obstacles and tension with your MC and their journey. Use these. Layer them in. Some you will use for plot wide conflict, like with the antagonist. Some will just add tension to specific sections and scenes. Use it. Use it. Use it.

The biggest thing you need to do when plotting your novel is keep your theme in mind. Remember your two different theme statements for your MC. You need to find a way to change them from the initial false theme statement, to the final realization/true theme statement. This means you need to make sure your plot isn’t working against you. Make sure your plot is proving your final theme statement and not your initial theme statement.

That means it should work like this. Throughout the first half of the novel, your MC makes decisions according to their false theme statement. Some of these decisions may work out at first, but by the midpoint, enough should have gone wrong to give your MC a moment of reflection. This moment is brought about by a side character at, or near, the midpoint actually stating the true theme statement. But then, something happens right around the midpoint that throws your MC even further into their false theme statement. For a moment they thought about changing, but now they absolutely can’t. They are more committed to their false statement than ever before.

As your character runs with their false theme statement, things should unravel and unravel until finally you have brought them to their lowest point. Their dark night of the soul. How they recover from this dark night, how they finally decide to fight back, must reflect your final and true theme statement. This is important! How they get out of this hell you’ve put them through, what happens at the climax must support your theme, not undermine it! This will look a little different depending on if you are writing a negative or positive character arc.

HAMILTON: Alexander Hamilton has a classic tragic character arc. From the very beginning we see him talking about how he’s not going to throw away his shot and how he wishes there was a war so he can rise up. Remember, his false theme statement is that he can create his own legacy by taking risks and working nonstop. But about 40% of the way through the musical, George Washington tells Hamilton this, “You have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” Then the revolutionary war ends and Hamilton gets to meet his son and it seems for a moment that maybe he’ll just become a family man. Have Eliza and Phillip and “that would be enough.” But then we get the finale of the first act and Washington asks Hamilton to come and be the Secretary of the Treasury. Eliza begs him to stay and the music builds an builds until we finish the first act with Hamilton signaling that he is plowing right back into that false theme statement by saying, “I am not throwing away my shot!”

Then in the second act, things start unraveling. Hamilton has his affair with Maria Reynolds because he “can’t say no to this.” Hamilton has never made himself say no to an opportunity. He never throws away his shot. Then when his enemies find out, he can’t bear the thought of allowing other people to tarnish his legacy. He creates his legacy, remember? So, without thinking of how it will affect those who love him most, Hamilton writes and publishes everything about his affair. Because at least he took control of the information about him. He is still in control of legacy.

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There is a glimmer of redemption after his son dies in a duel. But when Alexander is challenged to a duel with Burr, he doesn’t back down. He hasn’t fully learned this lesson about his legacy.

Until…Burr takes HIS shot. Hamilton has finally (literally) thrown away his shot, but it’s too late. And in the moments before the bullet hits him, he has his realization. “What if this bullet is my legacy? Legacy, legacy, what is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Do you see how this directly leads to the true theme statement, “You have no control who live, who dies, who tells your story.”

 

ZOOTOPIA: I will not be able to get as detailed with this one because I did not watch Zootopia on repeat for three months straight. But…I’ll give it my best shot. Now Zootopia is a classic positive character arc, so it is going to be shaped a little differently than Hamilton.

Officer Hopps begins the movie by claiming that Zootopia is the place where anybody can be anything and to prove it, she’s going to go and be a police officer. This is her false theme statement. But when she goes to Zootopia, things don’t work out the way she thinks they should. In a last ditch effort to prove everyone wrong, she gets 48 hours to solve a case. To do so, she must partner up with Nick Wiles, a fox. Now at the beginning of the movie, Officer Hopps shows some of her bias against foxes when she is nervous of Nick, but then she scolds herself for her backwards thinking and goes out of her way to show just how unbiased she is against foxes.  

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But that same bias that she is fighting against in other people when it’s about her, still exists in her own heart about other animals, specifically predators and foxes. As the movie goes on, more and more of her biases seem to be proven right, when predators start attacking, and she is thrown right back into simply seeing herself as proving the biases against HER wrong, without focusing on the changes she needs to make in her own heart. I don’t know the movie well enough to tell you which side character must state the true theme statement somewhere around the midpoint, but I am sure it happens.

Finally, at her dark night of the soul, she realizes that her bias and efforts to prove everyone else wrong about her, have hurt her friend, Nick, and thrown Zootopia into utter chaos, bringing out ugliness and terrible bias. She gives up her badge and goes back to her parents’ carrot farm. But what pulls her out of this dark night? Remember, IT MUST REFLECT THE TRUE THEME STATEMENT! It’s the fox from her childhood, the one who hurt and bullied her as a child, probably helping to instill some of those biases she carried with her about predators and foxes. When she meets him as an adult and he’s gentle and sweet and apologizes for how he acted as a kid (and of course says something that helps her break the case, but that’s beside the point!) He helped heal this lingering bias in her heart, so now Officer Hopps can go back to Zootopia, solve the case, and stand up and say, “Change begins with you!”

 

I know this is a lot to process, both because there’s a lot of information and not a ton of specific instructions. But the main thing I want you to walk away from this post understanding is that your plot must support your theme. And when your MC is making choices according to their false theme statement, it must eventually lead to bad things. Once they begin acting according to their true theme statement we get resolution and healing.

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Setting

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I know what you’re thinking.

Um, the premise of my book is about a boy on Mars, the setting is Mars, I don’t care what the theme is, he’s on Mars dang it!

Sssshhhh, yes, yes, I know. Your story premise and events probably require a certain setting. You should be able to organically tell what you need just by having a rough idea about your story. It has to happen in a small town, or a school, or a haunted house, etc.

But when dealing with theme, I want you to think beyond just the basic idea of setting. I want you to see the setting not just as the place, but the time of year, the weather, and all the objects that surround your MC.

Now that we’re thinking of setting in a more broad light, go read this post by Rosalyn Collings Eves on objective correlatives. Rosalyn talks about using the setting and objects in the setting to convey your main characters emotional state. You should also have some sort of plot wide objective correlative. Something that comes up several times throughout the story and helps reflect your MC’s character arc. This object should be important to the theme somehow. You should be able to state how it plays into it.

In Zootopia, there are several things, but the one that plays most into the theme is Officer Hopps’ fox spray, don’t you think? The way her relationship changes as to whether or not she needs that represents her journey through the theme that “Change begins with you.”

In Hamilton, I have a harder time fully pinning it down, but I’d say it’s probably Hamilton’s relationship to “bullets” and “shots” and “duels.” There are three significant duels in the story, and I think each of them represents an important turning point for Hamilton. Plus the idea of how he relates to “throwing away his shot” and finally in the end when he asks the question, “will this bullet be my legacy?” It all plays into the theme of “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’ because Hamilton was a genius and did amazing things for America, and yet we mostly just remember him as the guy who was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel and died.

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In a book by a CP of mine, the theme is about carrying the weight of another’s burdens on your shoulders. And the plot wide objective correlative is this constant pressing heat and drought. And as the story gets worse the heat gets worse, until finally everything comes to a head and the MC realizes she can’t do this all on her own and asks for help and finally, finally the heat breaks and the rain comes. Do you see how the OC mirrors the theme?

It is harder for me to tell you how to plan this. I think you just have to think about it. think about where you can insert “touch points” into your story. Think about an object that can represent the theme and then make it important to your MC. Think about a part of your setting, how can it change throughout the story to reflect your MC’s emotional state?

I can’t tell you how to figure it out, just that you need it. this is the kind of thing that really helps you add layers to your story.

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Characters

Once you know the theme of your novel and have a good idea of who your main character is, what they want, and how they change, you’re ready to start looking at your side characters.

Each of your characters will have a certain view or statement or opinion that has to do with your theme. Some of them will be similar to your MC’s. Some of them may be a kind of mirror that shows the same idea in a different situation. Other characters may have totally different ideas around the theme. This is where your tension comes in. Real, deep, meaningful tension. When these worldviews clash and cause their characters to do things that bring them into conflict.

The most obvious of these is the antagonist. The antagonist in your novel generally seems to take one of two slants with regards to theme. They either have an opposite theme statement from your MC, or they have a very similar theme statement that they’ve taken just a bit farther than your main character. I know that’s hard to understand, so let me show you.

Hamilton: The antagonist is Aaron Burr. Remember how Alexander Hamilton’s theme statement is about creating a legacy by not throwing away his shot? Well, Aaron Burr’s is pretty much the opposite. He has a legacy to protect and he is willing to wait for it. Totally, totally different.

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Zootopia: On the other hand, Zootopia is different. In the beginning it seems Nick is Officer Hopps’ antagonist, and they seem to have opposite world views. But the true antagonist of the movie is Assistant Mayor Bellweather.

Now, Officer Hopps’ theme statement at the end of the movie is “change begins with you.” But at the beginning of the movie, she is very much about proving everyone wrong who is biased about her. Basically, forcing her rosy, cheery world view on others. Bellweather is also trying to prove everyone wrong and force her world view, but she takes it too far. She uses violence and deception. She already has so much in common with Officer Hopps, it’s not too surprising that their theme statements are similar (with this sort of an antagonist, their theme view is close to the MC’s theme view at the beginning of the book. Facing off with the antagonist is part of the MC’s character arc and helps them change to that final realization/theme statement.)

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Of course, there are other side characters who are not just the antagonist. Make sure you give each of them some way of playing into the theme. Maybe you already know your characters and so as you think about them you’ll be able to see their part of the theme emerge. This is how I do it. I write the first about quarter of the book and discover my characters, then I start assigning them different theme statements.

But if you are in the first planning stages of your novel, maybe you’re still designing characters. In which case, it’s helpful to think about your theme and think about all the opposing views on it that you can, or different ways that theme can be wrestled with and design characters around the ideas that would create the most tension and conflict.

I know this is NOT how Lin Manuel-Miranda planned his musical, but let’s just pretend we are trying to plot the greatest musical ever and think about what kinds of characters we want.

We know the theme is about legacy and the statement is “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?”

The MC and antagonist have opposite views on legacy, with one taking the bull by the horns and creating a legacy and the other waiting for it and protecting one.

But what other kinds of characters can we have around this idea? Well, how about someone who already knows their story is going to be told and feels the pressure of that? How about someone whose story is told incorrectly? How about someone whose story is never told? How about someone who doesn’t want to be part of the story but doesn’t have a choice? Maybe you can come up with other kinds of characters. At the very least, you should be able to figure out who each of these characters are in the show.

Now let’s do it for Zootopia. We already have our Main Character, who believes that in Zootopia anyone can be anything and she is going to prove it to everyone! Well, what kind of characters might cause problems for her? How about a character who knows Zootopia’s dark side and knows that there is a sinister bias against certain animals and has experienced it? How about characters who worry that the idea of being able to be anything puts their loved ones at risk? How about a character who feels like that attitude puts his police officers at risk? What about a character who uses that shiny idea to make himself look good but doesn’t actually have to deal with the problems he creates?

These are all characters in Zootopia, do you see how their views on the theme create conflict and tension?

In my current WIP, the theme is about becoming a community by addressing each others’ needs. I know I will have a character who uses the community for his own mockery/gossip/entertainment purposes. I know I will have a character who refuses to be part of the community. I know I will have a character with a very real need who does not let the community know so they can’t help her. I also have another character with a big problem that actually helps solve another person in the community’s problem, but only after they connect and share. I have a character who is part of a different community that doesn’t appreciate her and needs to break ties. And I have a character who feels too busy to interact with the community.

Now, not all theme work will look like this. In the WIP I just finished, the theme is about being two seemingly opposite things at the same time and finding hope in that. And so, instead of giving each character a different idea about that, I gave them each a different pair of opposing feelings or ways of being that they were struggling with. My main character struggled with the idea that she could be living and dying at the same time. Her father struggled with faith and doubt. Her mother felt torn between her duties as a mother and a wife. Her friend struggled with feeling both proud and embarrassed of her neurodiverse brother, who was struggling with being both normal and different at the same time. See how this is different than the kind of theme statements we talked about above, but how they still helped me create characters that deepen the theme?

There are so many ways that your characters can interact with your theme, you just have to make sure that each of them do and that you can form a statement about how they relate to the theme.

Once you’ve figured out how your characters interact with the theme of your book, it’s time to look at your setting….in my next post. 🙂

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel: Main Character

Once you’ve figured out the theme of your novel, it’s time to start nailing down how that is going to play out and shape your manuscript. The easiest place to start with this is the main character.

I’m going to use Hamilton

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and Zootopia to illustrate this first.

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I’m also going to take you through the thought process on my current WIP so you can see it in action (also, it will help me jump back in and finish drafting this thing so it’s a win-win.)

First, you need to think of your theme in two ways. The first is as a general sort of topic, try for just one or two words.

Hamilton: LEGACY

Zootopia: BIAS

My current WIP: COMMUNITY (or WANT VS. NEED. Not totally sure yet.)

 

Now I want you to come up with a sentence that sums up the “truth” about this topic that you want your story to get across. The realization that your MC will have at the end of the book.

Hamilton: YOU HAVE NO CONTROL WHO LIVES, WHO DIES, WHO TELLS YOUR STORY.

Zootopia: CHANGE STARTS WITH YOU.

My current WIP: We are each part of a community and we use the community to address each other’s needs.

 

That sentence you just wrote is the end of your main character’s arc. Now, that means that your MC needs to start the story believing the opposite. This will help you figure out your main character’s weakness/lie they believe. We’re going to call it your character’s false truth or false theme statement.

Hamilton: I can create a legacy for myself by taking risks and doing big things.

Officer Hopps: I will make the world a better place by making sure EVERYONE ELSE does what they should according to MY world view.

MC in my current WIP: I am not important but maybe I can make everyone happy by granting their wishes.

 

These two statements will create your MC’s character arc. At the beginning of the story, they believe the false theme statement, but by the end they should understand the second theme statement. Your entire story revolves around getting your character from false theme statement to true theme statement.

With this idea in mind, it’s time to think about your MC’s internal and external struggle. The external struggle is what we really think of as the plot. But the internal struggle are those motivations that power the choices that fuel the plot.

So…

What does your MC want most? (external struggle)

and…

How does this reflect the internal struggle around theme that I just laid out?

Theme should relate to the external struggle, but the meat of your theme will be found in the internal struggle and the two of these need to be related. The interplay of internal and external struggle, character arc vs. plot doesn’t look the same for every book.

Sometimes the external struggle and internal struggle are very obvious and similar.

Look at Hamilton. His goal is to create a legacy and everything he does is powered around that goal. All of his external struggles are a result of his trying to fulfill that goal. So to me, the external struggle and internal struggle nearly overlap.

In Zootopia, it isn’t quite as obvious. Officer Hopps’ external goal is to become a police officer and, in the process, prove everyone wrong who ever put limitations on what small animals can do. Her internal struggle is about overcoming her own bias. These two struggles strongly mirror and affect each other (as the external and internal struggle always should.)

My current WIP: My MC’s external goal is to make her new neighborhood like her old neighborhood and have a fourth of July barbecue. A real community. Her internal struggle is about seeing herself as an important, integral, and change-making part of that community.

 

Now that you know the beginning and ending points of your MC’s character arc and have an idea of their external and internal struggle and how they relate, you’re ready to fill out those character sheets full of questions.

Yep, NOW.

Why not before? Because you are designing/creating a character. And you need to make sure that you are creating a character who really would believe that false theme statement at the beginning of the book. So questions about backstory are especially important. What has brought your MC to this place? Now that you know the attitude he/she needs to have, you can create a backstory and character details that support that.

At this point, you may be able to see some plot points. You may even be able to fully map out the character arc. But we’re not done planning yet, because next Thursday I’m going to talk about planning your supporting cast and they will be vital to your conflict and tension!

Using Theme to Plan Your Novel

When sitting down to write a novel, everyone has different strategies. Pantsing, plotting, loose outline, indepth character sheets first, there are as many ways to write a book as there are people writing them. As I get further into this writing thing, I’ve found that I plan a little bit more before I begin drafting, but that planning has changed. I now plan a book around the theme.

Not the plot.

Not the character arc.

The theme.

For me, I’ve found planning my book around the theme to be most effective in creating something cohesive and powerful. When I know the theme from the beginning, I see the heart of my story right away, and finding the heart of my story makes revision choices so much easier. I already know what is essential and what isn’t. I know what’s on the table to be cut and changed and the bare minimum few things that are not. This clear vision from the start helps me to shape the right characters at the beginning and when I’m focused on the theme, I usually leave little breadcrumbs in the early draft that I don’t fully understand how or why they’ll be useful, but in later revisions become extremely important. When you write and plan with a focus on theme, I believe your creative subconscious is able to really step in and help you more. (*Note* This is all “writing according to Amanda” and could be complete nonsense.)

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So you might be thinking, okay. But how do you plan according to theme? Well, sit down. Let me tell you. 😉

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First of all, and I know this is going blow your mind because it’s totally crazy, you have to know the theme of your book.

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Now, if you are a beginning writer, this will probably feel harder than for those with a couple novels under your belt. Each novel I’ve written, I’ve discovered the theme of my book earlier and earlier (Come to think of it, I still don’t know what the theme of my first novel was). And finally with this current WIP I figured it out before I began drafting but still needed to write a few chapters to really see how it played out. So don’t feel bad if you have to write 5-10,000 words to figure out what your theme is. I expect that before figuring out your theme, you at least know your premise and have some fuzzy ideas about where the book starts and where it ends and what your main character wants.

Here are some ideas to help you figure out your theme.

What is the big realization your character has at the end of the book? Or, what is the “lie” your character believes at the beginning of the book? Your theme will be found in the focus of these areas.

You’ve probably thought about what the external goal and struggle of your main character is, even if you haven’t 100% nailed it down. But to get at theme, what is the motivation behind it? How is it a reflection of the internal struggle? Your theme will be found mostly in the internal struggle, but also where the external and internal struggle meet and have things in common.

Is there an idea or imagery that repeats often as you think about your story? Your theme is probably found here as well (though it might be symbolic.)

When you think of your story, do you hear a piece of dialogue that is really some kind of wisdom? Your theme might be here as well.

When you picture the few scenes you have planned in your head and think about your story as a whole (even in its fuzzy state where you don’t know everything that happens) what is the feeling that you want the reader to walk away with? This is part of your theme too.

When you describe your book with the standard log line or 15 second pitch, if you’re like me, you probably want to follow it up with, “But what it’s really about is…” What comes after those words? Sure, your book is about a witch trying to take over the world using mermaids and satyrs. But what it’s really about is winning loyalty from people who are different than you….or…you know, whatever. You get the idea. This is your theme!

If you don’t already know the theme of your story, I hope these questions helped you nail it down better. The next post in this series, I’ll talk about designing characters around your theme.