Oct 22

Themes in Books

Themes in Books

NB. Read ‘Introduction to Planning and Plotting a Novel‘ in Advice and Information before the class

There is at least one successful writer who chooses a theme first and says she spends six months studying and researching before starting to create characters and the storyline. Jodi Picoult chooses big themes, such as infanticide, spare part siblings, teenage suicide…… Sometimes, the theme is well explored but the novel itself screams, ‘I have researched this topic and I am using the novel as a medium for preaching about it,’ and the story is spoiled, or weakened in proportion to the emphasis on the theme, rather than on the action and the development of the characters.
Ben Elton wrote a heart rending condemnation of War by focusing on individuals affected and destroyed by it in ‘The First Casualty.’
Dickens’ recurring theme of deprivation, particularly in childhood, certainly influenced public opinion and even legislation in England in the early 20th Century.

Most books that have a strong theme are memorable because they make you think, that is the point surely?
The reader is invited to consider/reconsider their views as the theme, and often other secondary themes, strike them. It is integral, incidental, insidious and intriguing and skilfully adds a dimension to the story. If the theme outstrips the story, to the point where it feels like preaching, then one could question the point of using story-telling at all. Why not just write a thesis on the theme? But, of course most of us have been stimulated to think and form opinions by well-written fiction that embodies a theme and explores it within the story, where we would never have thought of reading a serious thesis in the first place.

Using fiction to pass on ideas and information is legitimate and valuable. It is just about getting the balance right so that the story flows and the reader is allowed to form their own ideas and opinions about the theme, whilst learning from the information presented. The consequences for, and the reactions of the characters to the issues as they affect them serve as examples for the reader to consider, consciously or unconsciously.

Macbeth, for example, is about ‘Ambition’.
It is also has other themes, is about male/female relationships, honour, duty, self-fulfilling prophesies versus witchcraft, jealousy and envy…. It does not matter how historically inaccurate it is, how far artistic license was born of political expediency, because there is scope to discuss and find fascination in the themes ad infinitum.
But firstly it is a memorable because it is a thumping good tale with striking and vibrant characters, action and reaction, tension and drama, intrigue, treachery and a hint of the supernatural, and of course it was told by one of the best story tellers of all time. It couldn’t fail really! But if you are going to look for examples to learn from, you might as well choose the best!
If you write reviews for a book club, or just as an aide-mémoire for yourself, try to identify the main themes of the books you have read, and list the subsidiary themes as well. You may be able to identify some common themes in the books that you have found particularly interesting and enjoyable.
If you are going to write, this may help you to choose, more consciously and effectively, themes for your own work.


1. Think of a book that you have read that you found memorable and that had a strong theme. Write 200 words saying what the book was, why you found it memorable, was it entertaining, engaging, successful…..?

2. Make a list of themes that you enjoy reading/writing about.

Choose one and write an outline of a story that might explore that theme and/or the opening.

3. Share and discuss


Category: Group Sessions. Tags:Books.Story telling,WQriting,Themes

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