A blockbuster novel is the goal of many writers, but it can seem like an elusive dream to the burgeoning novelist. Freelance Friday’s monthly series “How to Write The Blockbuster Novel” will walk you through the elements and structure necessary to construct the bones of a novel that will enrapture your readers, not to mention agents and publishers if you chose the traditional publishing route.

As we discussed last month in How to Write the Blockbuster Novel: Edition One – Premise, the changing scene of publishing has shaken the core of how books are selected by readers. For instance, on Amazon there are 5,667 books listed as Legal Thrillers.  My search paled in comparison to other categories and genres, some upwards to 400,000 matching books. To compete with the ever growing online eBook explosion, you must separate yourself from the chaff. Become whole grain, if you will. How you do that starts with the basics of craft. Admittedly, I am in awe of published authors who have risen to The Girl on the Train status.  So, where did these authors begin? Right where you are – at the beginning. By the end of this post, you will have a heightened awareness of the woven thread that should bind your novel to something larger than just words on a page. Let’s explore Theme and why it’s important to your novel’s work in progress (WIP).

Let’s quickly revisit Premise from last month’s Edition One. Writer’s Digest, James N. Frey, defined it as – “The premise is the foundation of your story – that single core statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the actions of a story.” A premise statement is so imperative to penning the blockbuster novel, that it is the core to everything written after it.

Theme builds on this foundation by exploring the deepest vein in your story. Examples include: Justice, Truth, Love conquers all, Greed, and many others. Today we’ll explore both what Theme is, and equally as important, what Theme isn’t.

Finding the Theme in your novel begins at the chapter level of your WIP as suggested by Agent Donald Maass, Past President of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, Inc. First, pick any scene in your current work and evaluate why the protagonist is here. What internal desire, motivation, and driving force has landed her smack in the middle of this very important scene? Second, make a laundry list of every item that comes to your mind. Don’t hold back here. You likely have a list of physical needs, followed by emotional desires that move the action and your character’s arc forward. Somewhere in the middle of your list appear secondary items such as comfort, acceptance, desire to lead or follow. Last, residing at the bottom of your page are the more abstract motivations of your story such as hope, revenge, justice, love. If you flip your list upside down, you now have your story’s Theme at the top.

Abstract by definition means “to exist in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.” Theme is not genre such as romance, humor, or mystery. It’s not something you can touch, smell, or taste. You cannot own it, nor is it for sale. Theme is the most basic motivation that drives your character through every scene. It’s the passion that encapsulates your story and is abstract at its core. But be careful here. Theme is not preachy – rather it is a living and breathing organism that lives deep within the pages of your novel. Your protagonist is defined by Theme. She behaves differently when armed with Theme than she would if she were playing out episodic scene after scene devoid of a higher motivation. For instance, if Revenge is the tie that binds your story together, it would be unrealistic for your character to simply forgive the antagonist for a wrong he committed. Instead, she is driven by the Theme of Revenge and should act accordingly. Each step your protagonist takes in every scene should be across the stepping stones of Revenge (Theme).

Many times, Theme is expressed by a phrase such as above, Love conquers all. Others may include darker motivations. You may decide you enjoy one Theme so much that you want to write volumes about it.  The evil that men do lives after them. The good is often interred with their bones. – William Shakespeare. That would be one heck of a Theme to write about, and Shakespeare wrote it again, and again, and again.

Just remember that Theme is something you may wish to arm yourself with before you begin to write your novel. But it’s also versatile enough that you can decide on Theme after you’ve written your first draft. Think about it like a huge pot of soup made from chicken broth. You have the choice to sauté all the ingredients such as the onions, herbs, and roux, then carefully add the perfect amount of broth at the end. Or you may decide to heat the chicken broth to boiling and add your ingredients until your soup tastes just right. Theme is your chicken broth – No one cooks it up just like you.

The evil that men do lives after them.

The good is often interred with their bones. – William Shakespeare.

Next month’s edition of How to Write the Blockbuster Novel will grapple with Stakes.


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