If you’ve ever taken an English course in high school or university, you’re taught to care deeply about what books mean. You may have been compelled to write papers of various lengths about the way certain themes and motifs and all sorts of meanings can be gleaned by analyzing books.
Whether the book you’re reading is actually, you know, any good at all as a piece of storytelling is either wholly taken for granted or treated as beside the point.
Don’t get me wrong: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with reading this way, and there’s a lot of insight that can be gained from thinking about subtext. Making abstract thematic connections is a wonderfully important way of developing a more nuanced worldview.
I just don’t know how helpful it is to be overly invested in themes if you’re thinking of writing and pitching a novel. Because you’re not writing a bunch of themes. You’re telling a story.
The theme pitfalls
Sometimes when you ask an author what their novel is about, they devolve into a morass of abstract themes. Sort of like:
“It’s a coming of age novel about love and loss and a character who’s trying to navigate societal obligations and their sense of honor in order to find meaning in life and achieve true happiness.”
The problem with thinking about your novel this way is that the above description tells a prospective reader… pretty much nothing at all. When someone asks you what your novel is about, they’re not asking for a term paper or a list of pre-packaged themes that you’ll take away. They’re asking you what actually happens in your novel. They’re asking for the story.
When you stay at the level of themes, you’re not really telling the reader what makes your novel unique and why they should read it.
When you’re summarizing your novel and pitching: just give a summary of the story with specificity. Anything you want an agent or reader to take away in terms of themes should be self-evident from the pitch or plot description.
Sacrificing story for theme
But even before you get to pitching, there are perils in getting too wedded to themes and letting them get in the way of good storytelling.
Now, I’m not saying you can’t start a novel with themes in mind. There may well be something that’s deeply important to you to convey to a potential reader. And that’s okay!
But themes need to be translated into the realm of good storytelling and channeled into characters whose desires and actions make sense to the reader. The characters need to feel realistic, not like they’ve been shoehorned into a series of events in order to convey some separate meaning the author wants to impart. The story needs to feel cohesive, not like it was engineered to moralize or to be mined for subtext by some future grad student.
If you make too many sacrifices in your storytelling just because there are some very abstract ideas you wish to convey, you might end up writing something that may well mean something to you, but risks bewildering a potential reader.
Or you might get so caught up in themes you forget to tell a cohesive story entirely.
The story is what counts
Once again: there’s nothing to stop you from drawing upon themes as you write and having them in mind. But the best novels that circle around themes draw the reader in with beautiful storytelling.
And when you’re pitching or writing jacket copy: throw the themes out. Just tell your prospective reader the story.
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For my best advice, check out my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
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Art: Moritatenerzahler by Anonymous