Tips, Writing

Writing the Novel: The Theme Statement

Here we are, me included, standing on the precipice of starting a new novel. Before this adventure is over, I’ll write at least 300,000 words, and hope that between 90,000 and 95,000 will keepers. Looking at those numbers are enough to turn anyone off. How in the world does an average human being contemplate a task that big?

One small small step at a time, and that’s what this blog is all about. Each Tuesday for approximately a year, I’ll blog about one step in novel writing. I’ve used these same steps to write eight novels (five published, one looking for a publisher) and several novellas. Because I’m a mystery writer, my focus will be primarily on mysteries, but there’s good information here for writers in many different genres.

I hope the blogs turn into dialogs. I’d love to hear more about what you’re writing; what’s working for you; and what isn’t. I’d especially appreciate it if you’d send beginning writers to have a look at this blog, since working with new writers is one of my favorite things.

As writers, we have a standard list of why we read/write/enjoy mysteries. Justice is done. Crime does not pay. Murder will out. The world is put back into alignment through the actions and sacrifice of the hero/heroine. The bigger the sacrifice, the bigger the wrong that can be righted. These ideas are embedded in our culture, and I write from a European/North America cultural background. Writers from other backgrounds will turn out very different stories; justice may not always be done.

The majority of us also write personally-necessary stories. Each of us has a particular mix of stories and characters that won’t let us alone. They intrude during the day when we’re standing at the photocopier or doing dishes. They invade our dreams. They keep coming back until, in desperate self-defence, we have to put their stories on paper.

Image courtesy of Aduldey/

Image courtesy of Aduldey/

To shelter us, protect us, as we write this novel, we need an umbrella. That’s what a theme statement is. Theme emerges from issues. The protagonist confronts the theme; the antagonist is the theme’s touch point. Themes reflect a sense of both what we, as people, have in common and how we differ. At the beginning of the story, we may not know what our theme is, but it helps if we have at least a starter kit of an idea. Themes are big issues like justice, second chances, or self-forgiveness. They are not political or polemic; that is, we as writers aren’t trying to sway someone’s political or personal beliefs. Yes, some writers do this intentionally, but we’re talking about what sells; and that doesn’t. Great themes sell fiction; a too-obvious political agenda creates boring and polemic fiction.

Characteristics of theme statements
One or two sentences.
As broad an issue as possible. These are big, umbrella-like concerns, the kinds of things that heroes believe, because we’re all writing about heroes and heroines, aren’t we.
Should contain a conflict.

The book I’m about to start has the working title, Whiskeyjack. If you’re not familiar with these pesky birds, a whiskeyjack, also known as a Canada jay or gray jay, is a camp robber. They’ll not only steal food from a picnic table, but will dive and grab anything in your hand, as a friend of mine found out when she paused in a conversation with a sandwich held in the air.

Here’s my theme statement:
Whiskeyjack is about being careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

Is anyone willing to share the theme statement for their work in progress?

Theme Quote
I do not believe that sheer suffering teaches. If suffering alone taught, all the world would be wise, since everyone suffers. To suffering must be added mourning, understanding, patience, love, openness and the willingness to remain vulnerable.
~Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author and aviator (1906-2001)

One final word. Some weeks what I blog about on Thursdays will related to the Tuesday writing a novel blog; some weeks it will be completely unrealated. This is one of those weeks where there is a connection. Come back on Thursday for “Neutral Tools: Assembling the Writers’ Tool Kit.” Nothing like a set of new tools to start a new project.

The novel-writing blog next week will be “Style Sheets and Glossaries.”

Big thanks to Lisa at WordPress for helping me sort out how to add comments. I’d turned off two check marks that I shouldn’t have turned off. This is such a learning curve.