A Powerful Theme – Does your Manuscript Have It?

When editing your manuscript (and edit you must), it’s easy to get wrapped up in spelling, grammar, dialogue scenes and prose. While those are all vital to a publishable novel, there’s a big picture you might be missing. I don’t just mean the plot arc and character development, but the full message and theme of your novel.

This was difficult for me to grasp at first. I know it sounds simple: what is your book about? But you can’t just say, it’s about a father and his struggles. Or, it’s about a fire-wielding wizard. You need a powerful message that is going to allow your book to stand off on its own. It’ll make blurbs easier to write, and if traditionally publishing, it’ll be vital to pitching your novel to publishers or agents.

Let’s look at the first example. It’s too simple:

  • A father and his struggles.

What kind of struggles? What is the novel trying to teach or say? Is it about how fathers are underestimated and undervalued? Or is it about fathers who have lost their way? There needs to be a theme that says what is unique about this novel and is going to make me want to read it. Not only that, but makes me feel like I’m going to be able to learn something important from it. It shouldn’t just be a good story, it should be a message that the reader can ultimately appreciate.

Second example:

  • A fire-wielding wizard.

The fact that the main character can wield fire, and is a wizard, is just a simple vehicle for your message. This actually has nothing to do with your theme. It is simply the packaging you are wrapping around the message. What is the conflict? What are the struggles I can relate to?

If you’re like me, you write a novel without a theme in mind. The scope is far more narrow. You build up a character from scratch and talk with them every day until they become your best friend. You know them better than you know yourself. You put them in situations that are difficult and challenging, and then in the end they (hopefully) get what they were looking for.

But once you reach the end of the novel, take a step back and really try to sum it up for a theme, a message. Maybe you didn’t even intend to include one, but you know what? It is an element it needs to have. Especially if you plan on pitching it as a work that an agent or publisher intends to market and sell. A story without a powerful message is going to ultimately be difficult to market.

For example, Twilight. Do you know why it sold so well? Because teenagers around the world could relate to it, however sappy, cliched or drawn out it was. The message is that a young girl knows she has found true love, and won’t let anyone else tell her otherwise, even her vampire boyfriend. Do you know how many teenage girls can relate to that message? People underestimate the power of emotion young girls experience. Perhaps they forget what it was like to be young, or just never experienced it for themselves to fully understand. But it is something like this that makes a story sell. The sparkly vampires were just a pretty package to put it in.

Don’t be afraid to realize that perhaps your novel doesn’t have a powerful theme to stand on. Take the skeleton of what you have and try to morph it into something that does. Perhaps you only need to add a few chapters to change the message, or maybe you need a full rewrite. It depends on how important it is to you to make a work that people will can relate to, and therefore, a work that will be much easier to market and touch the hearts of readers.

I encourage you to challenge your work. If you find the message it says is confusing, or weak, don’t be afraid to make it better. The hard part is already done. You have the story down on paper. You have characters who have come alive and have struggles and personalities of their own. Now you just need to make the manuscript complete with its own message. Don’t discourage, you can do it!


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