I am pleased to welcome debut novelist, Elizabeth Lyvers to the website today to talk about themes in novels.
I remember the first time I was introduced to the concept of a “theme” in a work of fiction. I was about to start writing a new novel set in small town America against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and voraciously reading any writing craft book I could find at my local library. One day, voila – I found this lovely new idea to explore – the underlying message or “big idea” of my story.
Before even penning the first word, I decided that my novel’s theme would be “sacrifice,” and throughout the pages of my story I would allow my characters to explore and demonstrate self-sacrifice in their own unique ways.
It flopped like a soggy pancake.
Every few chapters I remembered that I was supposed to be propagating this soapbox idea and would nudge a secondary character to say something pithy about “sacrifice.”
Seamlessly interweaving a thematic concept into a work of fiction surprisingly requires a less heavy-handed approach. Things didn’t really click until I started reading literature with my eyes wide open. In the best of fiction, I found theme everywhere – no messy stitchwork visible.
In A Trees Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith explores tenacity and resilience through hardship in the lives of her impoverished, immigrant characters.
Dean Koontz may write entertaining commercial thrillers, but his stories carry some weight, sharing ideas about the power of love, beauty in nature, and healing through human relationship.
Pick up any gem by Toni Morrison and you’ll find thematic material deeply rooted in community and identity.
Thankfully, my writing continues to grow since the Vietnam War flop. Keep in mind, the art of writing is never prescriptive, so take or leave my “this-works-for-me; could-work-for-you” advice that follows.
I often start a new story with a question. In the case of my novel The Honest Lies, I asked myself – If I was in possession of a truth that would cause a person I love undeserved pain, would I tell them? Or would I withhold the truth to protect them? At what point does it become a lie?
My questions drove the initial engine of the story, and I built plot and characters around them. But ultimately it was the characters themselves – coming to life on the page, breathing on their own – who provided the answers. Sometimes they answer an entirely different question, in which case I realize that they’re quite a bit smarter than I am. While writing The Honest Lies, the question grew sharper – Would I still withhold the truth if this lie was the only thing keeping that person from loving me in return?
This question could be rephrased a myriad of ways and is a recurring premise in fiction – sacrificing one’s own happiness for the sake of the one you love. The theme might be condensed further to a term like “love” or “altruism” or “white lies.”
To be fair, when I say that my characters provide the answer, the credit really belongs to my subconscious as it picks up on recurring ideas in the dialogue and behavior. A pattern emerges. A theme takes form – no soapbox needed!
Some of the best writing advice I ever received was “don’t be afraid to let yourself talk.” You can edit the rambling fluff later but allow yourself the opportunity to provide commentary on your characters’ thoughts and motivations. Connect the dots. The setting, the tone, all the words your characters don’t say – they all contribute to theme. Each piece is a part of a living, breathing whole.
There is rarely a singular theme, and different readers will take away a different message. That’s the beauty of good fiction. It can seep inside of us, like water through a bed of pebbles, and trickle into a unique place, answering a question for me, but not for you. Breaking your heart but not mine.
Through The Honest Lies, I discovered characters like Jack and Megan who feel that living in a painful past is safer than stepping into the present. Sometimes the process of “healing” is so excruciating that we prefer to stay where we are, even if those circumstances keep us from real happiness.
You may read The Honest Lies and walk away thinking about the destructive nature of secrets or the healing power of truth or something else entirely. Whatever it is, the goal of any book is to make the reader feel something. Theme helps to build context around those feelings.
So, whether you’re working on an epic like Tolstoy’s War and Peace, determined to delve into the minutia of the existential realities of life and death. Or you just want to write something fun like a cozy detective series with a strong stance on loyalty and friendship, you can still pack a punch with your message.
Just remember – browbeating and soapboxing lead to soggy pancakes. Listen closely to your characters. They know what to do.
Here’s the link to my book The Honest Lies releasing December 8, 2020!
Elizabeth Lyvers is an American author publishing her debut novel through darkstroke in December 2020.