How To Write a Novel — Theme

Day 20 of writing my novel in public

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

I’ve started something scary here on Medium. It’s something I’ve done before, but never in public. I have a process that I’m going to follow, and I’d like to share it with you.

If you want to follow the journey from the start, go here.

If you missed yesterday’s, you can find it here.

Day 20 — Theme

I’ve come to this — the scary part. Theme is such a worrying word. How can I possibly define the theme of the book that I’m writing? Will it have just one theme? Or should I have many? Will they be deep and serious? Or can I be trite and cliché? Hopefully, the work that I’ve done so far will make identifying my theme reasonably painless.

Over the last week, I have identified story threads for my book — central, character, symbol, setting, dynamic and phrase. These are narrative elements that iterate through the book, repeating and varying as they go. The job now is to work out what it all means.

I’m looking for the theme, but that word doesn’t have to be so scary. All I’m really looking for is the point of the book. What is it all about?

Can there be more than one theme? According to the Book Architecture method of Stuart Horwitz, no. A book can only be about one thing. This makes sense to me. By having a single focus, the book will have a satisfying completeness.

So how do I find my theme? I start with the various story threads, decide on the most important ones, then look at how they connect and combine them down to a single statement.

I’ll start by looking at my two guidebooks, and the themes in those before tackling my book.

Guidebook theme

The two books that I’m using to steer my book in the right direction are The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis and Gangsta Granny by David Walliams.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

I have 10 story threads that I’ve identified so far. I’m going to list them from the most important to the least important.

  • Edmund and the White Witch (type: dynamic) — the White Witch initially seduces Edmund with offers of power and Turkish Delight, but eventually he realises his mistake — Will Edmund see the truth about the White Witch?
  • Stone Table (type: symbol) — represents the deep magic, the old way of the witch, compared to Aslan’s new way, the deeper magic — Will the old ways win?
  • Mr Tumnus (type: character) — Mr Tumnus betrays the White Witch by not turning in Lucy and pays the price — What will happen to Mr Tumnus?
  • White Witch (type: central) — the extent of the White Witch’s influence and whether she is winning — Will they defeat the White Witch?
  • Seasons (type: setting) — track the White Witch’s power vs Aslan’s arrival — Will it ever be Christmas?
  • Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve (type: phrase) — this strange phrase emphasises the importance of people from our world to the history of Narnia — What is the children’s destiny?
  • Edmund and Lucy (type: dynamic) — Edmund feels his older siblings and the adults have all the power, but with Lucy he is the elder — Will Edmund be nice to Lucy?
  • Wand (type: symbol) — the capabilities of the White Witch and the limits of her power — What are the witch’s powers?
  • Lamppost (type: setting) — the lamppost guides us between the world of men and the world of Narnia — Where are we?
  • Foolish to shut oneself into a wardrobe (type: phrase) — sensible children think of the consequences — Who is going to cause trouble?

The next step is to write a four sentence thematic statement from the threads.

The White Witch seduces Edmund because he craves Turkish Delight and power, but gradually he sees her evil until eventually he gives up his selfish desires and works with his siblings to destroy her. Aslan bargains with the White Witch for Edmund’s life, allowing himself to be killed before rising to defeat her. The White Witch forces Tumnus into kidnapping Lucy, but he can’t go through with it and lets her go, and the witch captures him. Scared by prophecies of her downfall, the White Witch attempts to change matters through force and fear, but her own ambition blinds her.

Now I try to whittle that down to two sentences.

Edmund and Tumnus initially follow the Witch’s desires to benefit themselves, but realise deep down that they are wrong to do so and suffer as a result before being released. Aslan faces the White Witch and allows himself to be humiliated and killed before rising to defeat the witch using her own ignorance.

And finally, down into a single sentence.

Good overcomes evil through sacrifice.

Gangsta Granny

I have 8 threads for Gangsta Granny. I’ll list them from the most important to the least important.

  • Ben and Granny (type: dynamic) — Ben’s opinion of his Granny changes from old and smelly to interesting and wonderful — Will Ben appreciate his Granny?
  • Gangsta (type: phrase) — what makes a person a gangsta — Can a granny be a Gangsta?
  • The Black Cat (type: central) — tracks reality versus fiction and the truth about Granny — Is Granny really an international jewel thief and Gangsta Granny called The Black Cat?
  • Tower of London (type: setting) — the bond between the generations — Can Granny and Ben achieve an impossible heist?
  • Mr Parker (type: character) — Mr Parker tries to catch the jewel thieves — Will Mr Parker get Granny and Ben arrested?
  • Granny’s House (type: setting) — Granny’s house reflects how Ben sees her — What makes a house a home?
  • Murray Mints (type: symbol) — murray mints as a symbol of Granny and being generous — How will Granny’s generosity rub off on others?
  • Tap Shoe (type: symbol) — Ben connects his parents’ love of ballroom dancing with their rejection of him — Will Ben love ballroom dancing to please his parents?

First, I will combine them down into four sentences.

Ben has a stereotyped view of his Granny and doesn’t want to spend time with her. When he discovers she was an international jewel thief called The Black Cat, he teams up with her to steal The Crown Jewels. The journey brings him closer to his Granny and, when he finds out she lied to him, he forgives her. He realises she will always be his Gangsta Granny, and he remembers her fondly after her death.

Now I’ll combine down to two sentences.

Discovering his granny was an international jewel thief challenges Ben’s view of his granny as boring. Their adventures trying to steal The Crown Jewels bring them closer together, so Ben comes to appreciate his granny and mourns her when she dies.

And now down to one.

Our perceptions of others change when we work towards a common goal.

My theme

So far I have 16 story threads to work with. I’ll write them in order from most important to least important.

  • Cupcakes (type: symbol) — Charlie’s self-expression and the appreciation of that expressed through the cupcakes he makes — Will anyone celebrate Charlie’s creativity?
  • Sandy (type: character) — Sandy tells Charlie she can talk to animals but Charlie doesn’t take her seriously — Will Charlie listen to Sandy?
  • Miasmus (type: character) — adults like and trust Miasmus, but the children have their suspicions. Can we trust Miasmus?
  • Miasmus’ Plan (type: central) — tracks what Miasmus is doing to achieve his secret plan — What is Miasmus’ Plan?
  • Recipes (type: symbol) — scientific thought vs intuition — Is it better to be rational or intuitive?
  • Do you smell that? (type: phrase) — to what extent are our perceptions unique and can we accept that and celebrate it? — Do we see things as they are?
  • Charlie (type: character) — Charlie’s attempts to pursue baking to support his family — Will Charlie make money from his baking?
  • Security Guard (type: character) — she is a member of Pensa (pensioners Mensa) and super smart, but her arrogance undoes her — Will she realise what is going on under her nose?
  • Bread (type: symbol) — openness to experience and willingness to experiment — How boring is your bread?
  • Charlie’s house (type: setting) — order and routine vs change — Will Charlie’s dad accept their mum is not coming home?
  • Mr Needem’s bakery (type: setting) — the excitement of new possibilities — Will Mr Needem diversify?
  • Charlie’s dad (type: character) — Charlie’s dad is not interested in food — Will Charlie’s dad try something new?
  • The Smell Tower (type: setting) — what are the secrets it is hiding — What are the secret plans?
  • Launch Event (type: setting) — a disaster is looming, but everyone is having fun — Will anyone take notice?
  • Childhood friends (type: dynamic) — this thread looks at Miasmus’ motivation — What is the connection between Miasmus and Charlie’s dad?
  • Birds (type: symbol) — the wisdom of the natural world — What can we learn from nature?

So now I’ll try writing a thematic statement in four sentences.

Charlie wants to bake cupcakes, but his dad sees it as a waste of time and money, so he pursues it secretly. Sandy offers Charlie support but he initially dismisses her, only slowly coming to realise what she offers. Miasmus has secret plans to use Charlie’s baking and offers rich rewards, but once Charlie trusts his intuition about Miasmus, he uncovers his revenge plot. When he is seemingly wrong about Miasmus, Charlie almost gives up but can’t dismiss the feeling that he is up to no good, discovering his misdeeds.

Now I’ll whittle that down to two sentences.

Charlie’s special way of seeing things allows him to bake exceptional cupcakes, despite his dad’s objections. Although Miasmus appears to be helping him, Charlie uncovers his real motives and, once he accepts his sister can help too, they foil his plans.

And now down to one sentence.

We uncover the truth by trusting our unique perspective.


That was so much easier than I thought it would be. Part of the reason is that there are many ways to find the theme, and not every step along the way has to be perfect. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have all the story threads, or if some of them are woolly. As long as I trust the process and do the best I can at each step, then a theme will emerge.

I am happy with the theme I came up with — we uncover the truth by trusting our unique perspective.

For now, I’m going to push the theme to the back of my mind. I want it to influence what I’m writing, but subconsciously. I don’t want to over-analyse everything with my theme in mind.

Tomorrow I will look at weaving together the story threads that I have created into scenes.

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If you want to try the process with me and write your own novel, I’d love to have you join me on this journey. Put in the comments on how you went with this step.

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