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How do you develop the theme of your novel? And does theme matter?

It’s time for another of our authors’ Round Robin posts, and this month we have another thought-provoking topic set by author Rhobin Courtright…

helena fairfax, freelance editor, fiction editor
‘Most novels have an easily understood point to make to the reader. Do your stories ever have more subtle themes?’

When I first start a novel, I’m not consciously aware of what the theme is going to be. It’s not until I finally write The End, that everything is clear to me, and the theme stands out.

helena fairfax fiction set in hotels

So I don’t sit down and say to myself, ‘OK, I’m going to write a book about happiness,’ for example, but that’s what my book Felicity at the Cross Hotel turned out to be about. And the strange thing is, it’s only when I look back on the whole process that I realise that, actually, I did have an idea right from the start.

This ‘woolliness’ probably doesn’t sound helpful if you’re looking for clear cut  instructions on how exactly to develop theme – but I’ll try to show how, once my theme is starting to become clear to me, I try to go back into the story and develop it further.

What is theme?

First of all, theme is different to plot or story. A story is about a character or group of characters and the events that happen around them. The theme is the message or overall picture that story conveys.

(For example The Three Musketeers is about friendship, and Pride and Prejudice is about, well, pride and prejudice. But there doesn’t have to be just one overriding theme. The story of the musketeers is also about revenge, and P&P is also about marriage and money.)

Since I write romance novels, my first building block is to decide on the romantic conflict – that is, the thing that’s going to keep the hero and heroine apart for the course of the entire novel. That conflict needs to be something within their characters (an internal conflict) rather than something outside their control (an external conflict, such as the hero being ill in hospital, or kidnapped, or something similar that puts a spanner in the works).

Romantic conflict and theme
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Once I’ve decided on the romantic conflict, that’s when the theme starts to come to light. In Felicity at the Cross Hotel the hero, Patrick Cross, has inherited an ailing hotel. Felicity works for her father, who is notorious for swooping up hotels and adding them to his corporate chain. But Felicity is one of those people who spreads happiness wherever she goes – you may have seen what I did with her name :) – and Patrick Cross, who has lots to be cross about, poor guy, begins to fall for her.

I’d already decided on the symbolism of the names before I started. It was as I was writing that I realised how important the theme of happiness was to the novel. I began to rewrite a few things to make the theme stronger.

I’ve written before about how much I love symbolism. Besides the symbolism of the characters’ names, I also rewrote the opening a little to emphasise the pathetic fallacy – that is, the symbolism of the weather.

The first line of the book is: ‘At last, it had stopped raining.’

Image by Seb Smith from Pixabay

With Felicity’s arrival at the hotel, the rain literally stops. She meets Patrick, gazing broodingly over the wet landscape, and as she speaks the sun comes out.

I brought in symbolism in other areas, too. For example, Felicity transforms the gloomy hotel literally as well as metaphorically. She buys new curtains, and Patrick, who doesn’t normally register these things, ‘noticed the light, slanting in a haze across the tiled floor. He turned to face the window. Where once the ageing velvet had hung, there was now a beautiful blue damask silk…

penny's antique shop of memories and treasures

Once the theme has begun to reveal itself to me, I love to play with symbolism to highlight it. In my novel Penny’s Antique Shop of Memories and Treasures, for example, the hero, Kurt, is taciturn and his heart is shuttered. (Note the symbolism of the name again :) ) When he takes a walk with the heroine in Richmond Park, he begins to open up to her in this vast expanse of greenery. It’s winter, but the crocuses and snowdrops are pushing their way through, symbolising how his heart is beginning to thaw.

I try to be subtle about developing a theme, and not whack the message home with a sledgehammer, but also not so subtle that I fail to get the message across at all.

This is just my personal way of developing themes in a novel. You might also be interested in this excellent article on theme on the Reedsy blog.

So in answer to the question ‘Does theme matter?’ Yes, for me theme enriches a story and makes it ‘about’ much more than boy meets girl.

Every author finds their own way to develop their themes. If you’d like to find out what the other authors in our Round Robin say on this subject, please click on their links below!

As a reader, do you care what the theme is in a novel, or are you more interested in the story and characters? Are there any themes you particularly love?

If you have any comments at all, I’d love to hear from you!

Connie Vines http://mizging.blogspot.com/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Diane Bator http://dbator.blogspot.ca/
Fiona McGier http://www.fionamcgier.com/
Dr. Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-22c
Anne Stenhouse  http://annestenhousenovelist.wordpress.com/
Victoria Chatham http://www.victoriachatham.com
Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobincourtright.com

26 thoughts on “How do you develop the theme of your novel? And does theme matter?

  1. Well, wrote my evil novel over the winter (Darth Vader was my muse…) and just made it up as I went along, adding lashings of violence and killing! Amazingly, my publisher liked it but she is now retiring. I therefore did the rounds of the literary agents and got two requests for the full manuscript. I didn’t get that elusive “yes,” but even two expressions of interest is apparently miraculous.

    So I think I’ll knock off a novel a year, go on doing the rounds and see if one makes it. Apart from that, it was quite satisfying delving self-indulgently into the demented depths of my subconscious after doing the biographical/inspirational one on the one hand and the Great Scottish Novel on the other…

    And in a word, i didn’t really know where I was going ’til I got there!

    P.S. Lucky you didn’t let me edit CROSS. I’d probably have carpeted the hotel grounds with landmines.

    Nothing like starting the story with a bang!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. :D It’s a good job you don’t edit any of my novels, James!! Congratulations on getting those two requests for the full manuscript. I hope you keep on submitting it. I know of an author who submitted to 101 agents before finally being picked up, and who is now a great success.
      I like your idea of writing a novel a year and seeing if one finally makes it. You have lots of ideas. (Why not try the romance genre one day! :) )
      Very best of luck with your latest, and thanks for dropping in!

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  2. I think that adding symbolism to the names of my characters would be too complicated. It is difficult enough to devise names which are either French, Gascon or Spanish; that are not similar; and that the names of bad characters are not the same as real, modern ones of local people. I have noticed that the themes of Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels vary and are a bit hidden underneath descriptions of clothes and scenery – but they are there for the delight of careful readers.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Danae, I struggle with naming characters, too. Once I’ve decided on a name, it’s a terrible blow to realise it’s too similar to one of the other names in the book, and to have to then rename them.
      It’s great to hear from a fellow fan of Georgette Heyer. I love her novels, and totally agree that she varies the characters and themes.
      I’ve really enjoyed this topic again. Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!

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  3. Oh yes, I love a theme. Symbolism, too. The novel I’ve just finished writing explores the idea of marriage (what is it? who can do it? why do they want to? is it something more than a piece of paper, and, if so, what? and why?) and I had some fun introducing some imagery based around knots – a knotted shoelace, ribbon knotted around a Christmas present, tangled jewellery, the professor’s ‘knot theory’…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that idea very much, Kathleen. I’m trying to think up something a little more ingenuous than the weather and names in my present wip. I knew the theme before I started in this one – it’s all about community spirit. You’ve inspired me to put my mind to it and see what imagery I can have running through it that builds on this theme. Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment!

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  4. Like you, I spend a lot of time and thought in names for my characters but I never stopped to consider them being a metaphor for the theme. Maybe I need to go back and think about the characters I’ve created and see if there is that connection! Very thought provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Skye, I do spend a lot of time thinking up the names for my characters. And once named, I find it extremely hard to go back and change that name. It’s like having to rename one of your own children! This was another great topic and really made me think about my own writing. Thanks for dropping in, and for your comment!

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  5. Hey, Helena. What an interesting post. I’m afraid I’m too much of a concrete person to get much into symbolism. And I confess I pretty much miss it in others’ writings, as well. I love how you’ve explained yours; none of which did I see when I read this delightful book. All of my books have the general theme of second chances because I believe in this so much, but that’s about as far as I go. I’ve shared. :)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Marsha, I love your theme of second chances, and your tag line of ‘experience required’. It’s perfect, and really sums up the theme of your novels as a whole. I’m looking forward to your new release! Thanks very much for sharing. I appreciate it xx

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  6. It’s interesting how we all write in a similar fashion but also different. I like to use symbolism, too, whether the reader picks up on it or not. It helps keep me focused.

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  7. I don’t consciously put symbolism into names, but I’ve put puns into the titles of all of my Minnesota Romances–does that count? After all, a pun is only the lowest form of wit if you didn’t think of it. Fascinating how we all see the prompt differently. That’s why our books are so different!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I absolutely love puns, Fiona, but I’m terrible at trying to think of them. Nothing ever comes to mind. I love the idea of putting them in your titles. I would if I could :D I love these Round Robins and seeing everyone’s different take. Thanks for dropping in!

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  8. A well set out post as always. I have never thought of what symbolism there may be in the character names I choose. Probably none!

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  9. Symbolism in names… Jane Austen’s use of personal and place names ? Mansfield Park, Mr Bingley’s new money…
    Painting a ceiling ( on a ladder or even scaffolding, Radio 4 keeps me concentrated and safe I listened to a discussion of names used by the Brontes – starting with Lucy Snow… Or not used – . Heathcliff’s lack if any other name.

    Another thought on names… When I was trying to get a book published, an agent pointed out that I’d used the same forename for two characters. Jane Austen could, Dickens used wildly inventive and memorable nonsense names. Now, is duplicating a name ever acceptable ?

    Themes ? Rewriting a book at the moment, I’ve studied the supposed seven plots, but
    life doesn’t limit experience to a single theme – even in 2020.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Esther, the programme about Bronte names sounds really interesting. I’ll have a look for it! Heathcliff’s wild and rugged name suits him perfectly. Perhaps inventing names is a better way to go than looking for symbolism in existing names.
      I don’t think it matters about duplicating names, as long as readers don’t get confused. And I’m not enjoying the overall theme of 2020 one single bit. I hope 2021’s theme is all ‘uplifting’.
      Thanks for dropping in, and for your great comment. (I love the name Esther, by the way!)

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  10. Thanks Helena…
    I love Helena, including Falco’s amazing wife,
    Thanks too for the advice about duplicating names –
    As for 2020.. Postgrad, why on earth did I choose to work on the – drum roll of anticipation – economic and social consequences of a pandemic…
    Black Death, so at least they were spared viral social media scares and .gov.uk.
    instructions,

    Liked by 1 person

  11. That’s amazing you chose that as your postgrad subject. I hope the consequences aren’t as dire as everyone seems to think. And I expect they had their own scares during the Black Death, just confined to their community. Scary stuff spreads quickly.

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  12. Did anybody imagine a real pandemic, now ? As Bristol uni careers said, bugs don’t care which century it is, and suggested epidemiology.
    Not long after the Black Death – by the early 15th century, women could get mortgages – but that was pre-Reformation.

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    1. I didn’t know women could get mortgages at that time. That’s very interesting. This is something I touch on in my book Struggle and Suffrage in Halifax. Women could be members of the Halifax Building Society when it first opened (that is, they could open a savings account) but they couldn’t borrow any money, or be employed by them. It wasn’t until WW1 that the first female clerk crossed the doors.

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  13. Helena, Like many of us, you don’t set out to write theme until you find it. We always know characters and plot as we develop the story, but theme can be illusive. But not always, as in War and Peace, for example. And it is so true that once one finds tthe author finds the theme, he or she can can revise the book to. insert the theme into various scenes. Usually a sentence here and there is enough. Wasn’t this a great topic?

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    1. Hi Judy, I really enjoyed this topic, and I enjoyed seeing the other authors’ take on it very much. Every time we have one of these Round Robins, it always makes me analyse my own writing in a way I hadn’t thought of before. Looking forward to next month’s! Thanks very much for dropping in, and for your comment.

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