Strengthening Theme

I had no shortage of epiphanies at the ACFW conference. I thought I’d share these gold nuggets on my blog over the next several Mondays. The first gold nugget comes from James Scott Bell’s early-bird workshop.

What is the theme of your story?

Whether you know it beforehand or don’t discover it until after you finish writing doesn’t matter. What matters is that you can identify it. Basically, what is the life lesson your character learns at the end of the novel?

Once you’ve identified the theme, here’s a tip for making it more powerful:

Toward the beginning of your novel, find a place where your character can argue the opposite of the life lesson.

For example:

In Wizard of Oz, Dorothy learns “there’s no place like home.” But in the beginning of the movie, she doesn’t want to be home. Home is boring. Home is black and white. She wants to go somewhere beautiful and appealing. Somewhere with color. So she sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey learns that he doesn’t need to travel the world for his life to be significant. But in the beginning of the movie, we see him as a young boy, telling two girls how he’s going to go out exploring and travel the world.

Questions to Ponder: What about your novel? Does it have a theme? Is there a point where your character argues the opposite of what they learn? Can you think of more examples from movies or novels where characters argue the opposite of what they end up learning?


20 thoughts on “Strengthening Theme

  1. Terri Tiffany

    This is a great idea! I have never thought of doing this in terms of my theme:)) But will now!

  2. T. Anne

    Great advice! I always make sure there is some theme that ties the novel together. In fact, I try and figure this out while I'm still in the plotting stages.

  3. Jessica Nelson

    Whoa!!! I love that! Yes, I have a theme and I usually do have the character being in an opposite place of the theme, but now that I know this trick, I'll make sure it happens in all my stories. Great idea!

  4. Jill Kemerer

    I like the idea of showing our character act the opposite of what the theme is. Nice!

  5. Rhonda Schrock

    I love his books, especially his newer ones. I've even emailed him, and he responds right away. He's so personable. How fascinating to meet him in person and to hear his insights!

  6. Shannon O'Donnell

    Those are wonderful examples, Katie. I struggled a bit with the beginning/end differences, but I think I'm there. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Tamika:

    I've been thinking theme for a lot in the editing stage. I don't think during the first draft tha I really knew myself.

    Thanks for the tips, because I want to polish a lot this run through and the theme is a great wat to explore doing that!

  8. Sherrinda

    Great post! I wonder…do you think a writer needs to know the theme before they start writing? Or is it something that emerges? Do you know yours beforehand?

    p.s. THANK YOU for the link to My Book Therapy! Oh my goodness! I joined and was able to access the link and was blown away by the archived chat on black moments. It was fabulous and it sure made me think.

  9. Lynn

    Great information! My short stories do have pointed themes and I tend to use lots (too much) symbolism. Now back to revision to add in another scene. Excited to do so though!

  10. Sarah Forgrave

    Oh, this point stuck out to me too. I tend to discover theme after I've written the story, and I loved his point about planting the opposite reaction early on. That man is brilliant! ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. Susan J. Reinhardt

    Hi Katie –

    I never thought of starting the character out at the opposite end of the spectrum. Once I saw the examples, it made perfect sense.

    Susan ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Carol J. Garvin

    That's a great nugget, Katie. It took me a while to figure out the theme of one of my novels. During a rewrite I finally realized that it's, "who you are is are is more important than who youโ€™ve been." My MC doesn't argue the opposite, but how he's living his life is based on it.

    Now I need to look at my current work and see what I can do to strengthen it.

  13. Patti

    That's a great way of looking at it.

  14. Jeanette Levellie

    Wow. Isn't he the smarty pants?

    IF I write a novel, the theme will be somewhere between God's Grace is Deeper than Your Sin and Obedience is More Fun than Rebellion. Reminds me of Captains Courageous, an old classic movie with Spencer Tracy. You have to see it. Pure genius. A fifth grade boy who's spoiled by his rich dad goes overboard on a cruise, and a fishing boat picks him up and puts him to work for three months. Aha.

  15. Lisa Jordan

    In my current novel, the theme is what makes a hero. My character has a brother with mental and physical challenges because of my character's actions. His younger brother calls him Super Nick, but Nick feels so far from a hero. He learns a hero isn't someone who is strong by himself, but a true hero is willing to accept forgiveness, forgive himself, and lean on God daily. True heroes are ordinary people who are used by an extraordinary God.

    Finding the theme isn't always easy, but knowing it adds dimension to your characters and story.

    Great nugget! Thanks for sharing, Katie.

  16. Cindy R. Wilson

    Yes! I loved this nugget and I'm going to keep it in mind as I start my new story.

  17. Erica Vetsch

    I think this ties in with what Rachel Hauck teaches…what lie does your hero/heroine believe at the beginning of the book? How do the circumstances of the story force the character to change their thinking and come to understand the truth.

  18. Wendy Paine Miller

    I can see how this would make it much more powerful once they learn the lesson or discover that special finding. The change becomes more clear, standing out more.

    Interesting. I'll have to play with this.
    ~ Wendy

  19. Sandra Heska King

    Pure gold! So simple. Aha!

  20. Tabitha Bird

    Katie this is BRILLIANT! I have been battling this exact thing with my memoir. The agent who is waiting in the rewrites said that one thing that needs strengthening in my memoir is a theme. I deal with a few, but ONE is not clearly brought out. And she is right. I know what the theme is but bringing it out clearer has had me stumped. BUT THIS is how I could do it more clearly. PERFECT PERFECT! Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚ Funny how you know the theme but don't say it clearly enough sometimes.


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