Ciji Ware | Can You Name That Theme
February 8, 2010
I think perhaps one of the hardest things for a budding novelist to master is
determining what the "through line" is and meaning of the book you are writing.
In other words: what is its theme?
I am not talking about the book’s "message," though there certainly may be one
by the time the story ends.
Think, for a moment, about the Wizard
of Oz. Sometimes there is a line in a
book that states the theme loud-and clear, as when Dorothy says, "There's no
place like home!" That same theme also holds true for the film Apollo
At the heart of both stories is the idea that we humans long for and are
hard-wired to want the safety and refuge of being in a familiar place, inhabited
by the people we love. The simplest and most simplistic expression of the theme?
"Home is where the heart is."
In my experience, however, I often don’t uncover the theme until I’m well into
writing a new book.
For instance, I was very nearly at the end of ISLAND OF THE SWANS before
it dawned on me: this is a story about coping with nearly unbearable loss.
My eighteenth Scottish heroine, based on an historical figure, is the beautiful
Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon, whose dates are 1749-1812 (The image of
Jane gracing the cover of this Sourcebooks Landmark edition is from the
Scottish National Portrait Gallery).
Very early in the telling of my tale, Jane loses a finger in an accident, thus
marring the perfection of her extraordinary good looks.
Soon, she believes she has lost the single most important person to her in the
world, and toward the end of the novel, she must cope with difficult choices
forced upon her that make her wonder if everything she ever dreamed of and
fought for was gone forever. As all good heroines do, however, she manages to
triumph in the end, but not without great struggle to overcome the odds stacked
against her. "Loss" and triumphing over it were at the very core of this
amazing, true-life tale.
In Search of Your Novel’s Theme
As your own writing progresses, if you haven’t already, you'll begin to uncover
the connections and relationships that you may not have realized you’d even
created when you originally planned the basic outlines of your novel.
If you're frustrated in trying to find your theme, think first of the Seven
Deadly Sins: sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, pride, covetousness/greed, and anger.
Do any of those offer clues to what your story is truly about?
Many novels derive their themes from these universal "unethical acts": (i.e.
"God'll get you for that!")-and often you’ll be able to ferret out the
kernel of what your story is about if you simply ask yourself: "What unethical
acts have been committed against my heroine and hero?"
As you work through your first draft, in the back of your mind keep a lookout
for those connecting relationships between elements in your story. These
elements are the underlying foundation-points of the tale you're telling. Are
your characters dealing with lust, pride, anger, envy, or something closely
Sometimes, there isn’t a line in the book that states precisely what these
elements/themes are...but, if you become conscious of patterns and similarities
unfolding in the plot, you’ll find that a theme is in there, holding your story
together like steel girders in a building.
• What self-knowledge has the hero/heroine gained by the end of the
• What lessons have been incorporated into the very fiber of your main
The answers you give, however subtly presented, may be your theme and can serve
as the elements that give your readers satisfaction when they finished the last
page of your novel.
Why Having A Theme Matters in Fiction
These thematic elements are the glue that cement your story to your reader's
own life experience, but we writers must, at all costs, avoid being preachy and
find ways in which to skillfully weave the theme into your story.
In the second of my novels being re-issued by Sourcebooks Landmark in
2010, A COTTAGE BY THE
SEA, the theme is simple: how can we forgive the unforgivable and reinvent
our lives after unthinkable tragedy?
In this story that weaves the ancient past with a contemporary present, we have
a double dose of unethical acts of adultery committed against the heroine (a
Seven Deadly Sin that combines lust and coveting)...along with the burning
question: how can a person who has been dealt a series of terrible personal
blows because of an envious sister and narcissistic husband, put her life back
Thus, we have Envy--another of the Seven Deadly Sins--as well as Pride on the
part of a famous film director/husband who always put his needs and wants ahead
of everyone else’s. The theme is about the journey to recover the heroine’s
soul, regain her purpose in life, and to feel joy once more. In a nutshell:
But here’s a yellow flag of caution: Writers need guard against being
heavy-handed regarding this theme business. It can’t be manufactured. The
theme isn’t an overlay or an add-on. It’s organic to the plot; it must be
naturally embedded in the bones of the story itself.
Think about the novels you’ve loved and see if you can find such themes as:
• Atonement and redemption
• Love conquers all
• Watch out what you wish for
• Consequences of seeking revenge
• Battle of the sexes
• What goes around, comes around
If you suddenly "see"--as I did so late in the game writing my first historical
novel, Island of the Swans--that there was a connecting thread to nearly
everything that happened to my heroine, you’ll have discovered your theme.
And once you have, Bingo! If you’re a budding novelist, I predict that your
second draft and consequent rewrites will go much more smoothly.
ISLAND OF THE SWANS BY
in stores February 2010
Re-issued in its original full length, this acclaimed and bestselling romantic
historical novel by award-winning author Ciji Ware tells the true
story of passionate and flamboyant Jane Maxwell, the 4th Duchess of Gordon
(1749-1812). In love since childhood with Thomas Fraser, when she hears that
he's been killed in America, she marries the Duke of Gordon with disastrous
results. But Fraser, very much alive, returns to England to claim her love.
In addition to telling a heart-wrenching love story, ISLAND OF THE SWANS also
paints a fascinating portrait of a powerful and controversial woman and the
tumultuous era in which she lived. Patroness of poet Robert Burns, advisor to
King George, painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, Jane Maxwell was a towering figure
in her own time and is an unforgettable heroine.
About the Author
Ciji Ware has been an
Emmy-award winning television producer, reporter, writer, and radio host. A
Harvard graduate, she has written numerous historical and romance novels as well
as non-fiction. When she's not writing, Ciji is a Scottish history
and dancing aficionado. She lives with her husband in California.
see contest prize
36 comments posted.
Re: Ciji Ware | Can You Name That Theme
I don't write novels. I am, in fact, a horrible writer. I do, however, love reading. Yet I never though about the theme of a book before or even about how the Seven Deadly Sins can be applied to the book. This is all very interesting information.
(Alyn Yang 11:16am February 1, 2010)
This is an interesting take on the novel writing process. I am not a writer either, but I am an avid reader. I can relate though to this process in relation to revealing the theme of your life as you become older and wiser if that make sense.
(Pamela Romero 2:59am February 8, 2010)
Another reader-non-writer here! I wonder...do you think that a writer's theme might reflect some of that writer's life experiences? And are readers drawn to themes that reflect their history?
(Deborah Rosen 4:37am February 8, 2010)
I am just an avid reader who always has a book in her hand. You are a new to me Author and I definitely have to read Island of The Swans. I love reading stories about women who face trials and heartache but in the end they have a HEA. Thank you for an interesting post.
(Carol Luciano 5:49am February 8, 2010)
How wonderful to learn about what an author goes through in writing a great book. Thank you for the insight.
(Joanne Reynolds 6:23am February 8, 2010)
I have only recently developed an interest in historical fiction. Now I can't seem to get my hands on enough. This looks very intersting.
(Melissa Maringer 6:43am February 8, 2010)
(John Moldt 7:46am February 8, 2010)
I have not read any of your books but this one does sound interesting! I'd love to find out what happens to Jane in your story!
(Laurie Gommermann 7:52am February 8, 2010)
Very good topic. I am not a writer but an avid reader. I would have to say that of the themes mentioned Love conquers all and the battle of the sexes are two of my favorite themes.
I like that in most books the title of the book is somewhere used in the story as a defining line.
I cut my romantic teeth on historical romance when I was a young lass of 17. SO need less to say historical romance is one of my top favorite genres.
(Gigi Hicks 7:57am February 8, 2010)
I am one who tends to almost overthink the purpose of a book. I have been trying to just go with it these past few years and have found that without overthinking I have a much better understanding of a book when I am finished reading.
(Danelle Drake 9:58am February 8, 2010)
I am a reader, not a writer. I found your thought process fascinating. I had never considered fiction works (outside of those taught in literature classes way back when) as having a central theme. But of course they do! Thanks for a very interesting post.
(G S Moch 10:34am February 8, 2010)
Interesting, to be sure. Though I've noticed some books have no themes or poorly written themes.
(Cathie Veres 10:58am February 8, 2010)
Sounds like my kind of story plus it has a wonderful cover.
(Sherry Russell 11:42am February 8, 2010)
Thanks for the insight into the writing process.
(Shannon Scott 12:29pm February 8, 2010)
As a writer, I soak up tips and other shortcuts. Making sense from stories I always look for the point(s) being made.
(Alyson Widen 12:34pm February 8, 2010)
I am newly retired (4 weeks!) and am just getting back into the reading game. have always loved historical fiction
(Barbara Studer 12:47pm February 8, 2010)
(Marjorie Carmony 1:11pm February 8, 2010)
Island of the Swans sounds like quite a fascinating historical romance.
(G. Bisbjerg 1:50pm February 8, 2010)
Thanks so much for putting us on the trail to finding the theme. In some books the basic theme is quite evident if we only look at it as such. I've just finished a book which embodies several of the themes that you brought up: redemption, greed and lust with love conquering all.
(Sigrun Schulz 1:56pm February 8, 2010)
Thanks for the insightful essay.
(Deborah Anderson 2:14pm February 8, 2010)
My favorite theme is the 'careful what you wish for' it's fits quite well with many of the events that have happened in my life and, if I were a writer, it is probably the theme my stories would have.
(Mary Lynn Hayes 2:22pm February 8, 2010)
As a reader I am in total awe & admiration of writers. The dedication & skill is one I envy.
(Mary Preston 5:29pm February 8, 2010)
I started writing the 1000 words per day just after Thanksgiving because I want to be a writer. As much as I read I never thought about theme. That is where I will start my next weeks writing on specific themes. Thanks for the idea.
(Sandra Dickey 6:16pm February 8, 2010)
A friend told me about your books she know that I love to read and I check out your wedsite and she gave me one of your books it was great, looking to get more of your books. Donna
(Donna Saltzman 6:30pm February 8, 2010)
When I was sixteen years old, I picked up my first romance novel. Within the first chapter I was addicted. So addicted that when my grandmother asked if I minded rubbing her feet, I told her only if she would agree to continue reading my book aloud for me and she agreed. Of course it came to a very explicit scene and my grandmother, true to her word, remained reading even though she wore the BIGGEST blush for having to read such a thing to her 16 year old grandchild. It is a memory I will never forget.
(Jeri Daniel 6:44pm February 8, 2010)
Thanks for the advice, it was very helpful. I'm attempting to write for the first time and any help I can get is greatly appreciated.
(Joelle Beebe 8:28pm February 8, 2010)
This reminds me of high school. Whenever a book report was assigned, one of the item is what is the theme. To understand the book and the story, you really need to know what is the theme.
(Kai Wong 8:47pm February 8, 2010)
Another reader-non-writer here
and as a reader, the theme
doesn't matter- only whether the
book grabs me enough to make me
forget that I AM reading.
(Lisa Richards 10:52pm February 8, 2010)
I had never heard the term "through line" before. Of course, I have heard of books having a theme. I read books for entertainment or enlightenment, and you will now have me looking for a theme. LoL
(Gladys Paradowski 11:09pm February 8, 2010)
Great advice from a very talented author!!!
(Mitzi Hinkey 11:22pm February 8, 2010)
I love historical fiction...thanks for adding a new author to my list.
(Janet Stewart 12:37pm February 9, 2010)
A very insightful post
(Diane Pollock 2:48pm February 9, 2010)
Yes, Please enter me in this fantastic Contest. I am now a Reader and in the future would love to be a Writer too God Willing. I love these Contests on Freshfiction.com and have Won some too and look forward to winning many more wonderful Author gifts.
God Bless You all, Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez [email protected]
(Cecilia Dunbar Hernandez 8:38pm February 9, 2010)
Book sounds interesting. Will need to stop by the bookstore to check it out.
(Kai Wong 9:03pm February 9, 2010)
Love the cover can't wait to read.
(Catherine Myers 9:51pm February 9, 2010)
Thanks for the great blog and advise! I will keep plugging away at my historical! LOL!
(Jane Lange 10:49pm February 9, 2010)
Registered users may leave comments.
Log in or register now!