Individual Writing Tips

And It Was Just Right

Twisted Plots

One Perfect Rose

Don’t Skin the Cat!


Becoming a Hero

Climbing Up to Kaboom

Rise up & Commit

Foiled Plans

Lights, Camera, Kickoff

Fixing the Most Common Intermediate Mistake

The Most Common Intermediate Mistake

The Art & Necessity of Critique

Set up & Pay Off

A POV Footnote

Single Spy to a Teeming Hoarde

Tense Persons


High Concept

Scoring in the Elevator

Show and Tell

Taking Out the Trash

Tale of Two Synopsises

Rising to the Occasion

Middle-of-the-Novel mud

Doghouse on Malibu Beach

Taking Away the Easy Button

Pitching to the Pros

Hunting for an agent

Playing for higher stakes

Exploding writing myths

Are you the next American Idol?

A Time to Write

TV or Not TV

What Colour Hat Does Your Universe Wear?

How Big a Hammer?

The Irrational Optimism of Writers

The Pesky Typo Hunt

A Point of

Making Your Reader Believe

The Art and Necessity of Critique: Part 2

The Art and Necessity of Critique: Part 1

Writing the Other

Beating the evil TV

Badge & Handcuffs

The Editor is Never Wrong, Mostly

Do You Want a Cookie?

But What Do the Trees Say?

Writing the Dread Synopsis

Writing Children's vs. Adult Books

Writing tip for Summer '05

How big a hammer?
:is it important for the reader to understand your theme?

A friend of mine recently submitted his first novel to my critique group, a fantasy with a deeply spiritual theme and lots of symbolism.  He was somewhat distressed when his theme and symbolism were completely invisible to 90% of his readers, and the following discussion raised some interesting questions—and very few definitive answers.

How important is it for a novel to have a theme?

I'd have to say, it depends on what kind of novel you're writing.  For literary fiction—very important.  For popular fiction, maybe not.  I can think of plenty of popular fiction, that I enjoyed a lot, that had no discernable theme.

But what about Science Fiction, the literature of ideas?  Or fantasy?


My personal take is that having a theme enriches any novel, but it doesn't always have to show.  Since my books are mostly for kids and young adults the theme is usually pretty clear, though I try not to hit people over the head with it.  At least, not with too big a hammer.  If your thematic hammer is too big, the reader is likely to find the experience painful rather than enlightening—and your story will suffer for it.

I believe that the presence of a theme can greatly enhance a novel without the reader ever knowing it's there.  It will probably be your theme that determines the choices your character makes, and how he grows.  It gives the novel a feeling of depth, of being "about" something.  As I told my friend, it could well be his understanding of the theme that gives his writing the luminous, stained-glass quality that lifts it out of the ordinary—even while his intended meaning flies right over my head.

I'd like to say that theme is like an underground river.  (That sounds so poetic.)  But actually it's more like the water table.  It's an intrinsic part of the structure of the land, influencing the climate, and the flora and fauna.  It pops up in beautiful, unexpected springs that give life to the surrounding territory.  And when the people who know that it's there tap into it, it brings them healthy, growing crops, not to mention drinking water.  But I drove from Denver to the coast of Oregon last summer—seven days across southern Idaho and down the Columbia River gorge and five days back through the beautiful deserts of Utah and Nevada.  And driving through plains, along rivers, in coastal rain forests and deserts, appreciating the scenery and the ecosystems all along the way...not one single thought of the water table ever so much as crossed my mind.

So I should put down my hammer, and go for hidden water instead?

Well, it depends on what kind of novel you want to write...