using theme in your novel

Filed under: writing

Last weekend I was at the Romantic Novelists’ Association conference up in Sheffield. As always it was a brilliant event, fully worth the six and a half freaking hours I spent sitting motionless in traffic on various motorways in order to get there. It was great to catch up with friends and learn more about writing, publishing, and (dare I say it) drinking wine.

I gave a workshop on Using Theme In Your Novel and afterwards, several people asked me to put up my presentation online. I’m not exactly going to do that, because I’m hoping to sell it as an article to various writing magazines, but I’m happy to summarise it here, and to share my process with my own novel, Dear Thing.

I decided before I started writing Dear Thing that the theme would be PARENTHOOD. That is, the book would focus on issues about parenthood, and therefore all the settings, characters, sub-plots and imagery would be connected, in some way, with this theme.

(I do this with every novel, by the way—even when I was writing shorter novels, although I find it even more useful when writing longer stories because it helps keep me focused. The theme of The Summer of Living Dangerously was ESCAPE, and particularly ESCAPING THE PAST. The theme of Getting Away With It was IDENTITY. The theme of my current novel is WHAT IS LOVE?)

Once I decided what my theme would be, I did some brainstorming about it. This isn’t the actual brainstorm…my real one was much messier, and much more random, with lots of threads I didn’t end up using, but this is one that actually contains stuff that exists in my novel:

PARENTHOOD brainstorm

PARENTHOOD brainstorm

Once I’d thought about different applications and contexts of the idea ‘parenthood’, I used these to come up with the characters, secondary characters, plot, subplot, setting, and imagery for my book.

For example, one heroine Claire, who’s infertile (MAIN PLOT), has a job as a teacher in a secondary school (CHARACTER), where she’s tempted to become a parent figure for one of her students (SUBPLOT). And the other heroine Romily, who’s a single mother and a surrogate mother (MAIN PLOT), works as an entomologist with knowledge of social insects and their parenting behaviour (IMAGERY), and has a dilemma involving the father of her child (SUBPLOT) and whether she fits in with the mums at the school gate (SETTING).

It gets much more complicated than that, because of course each character has multiple relationships and roles.

Can you do this for your own novel? Sure. Identify your theme, brainstorm it, and try to see how you can use this theme, in different ways, to make your novel deeper and richer.

As far as the conference goes, there are some brilliant posts about it here on Janet Gover’s blog and on Miranda Dickinson’s vlog.

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