Write a Theme, Not a Sermon

English: Lecturn, Parish Church of St Leonard,...
English: Lecturn, Parish Church of St Leonard, Downham. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every book is “about” something. What is right or wrong, love conquers all, and other profound topics. The theme is the core message of the book. In essence, it is an opinion about reality – a perceived truth. Likely, it is something you believe in strongly. This is great. It means you can write strongly about it. But for fairness to the reader, depth in the book, and conflict among characters, do not forget to include other perspectives.

Readers
love a dilemma, a lesson, and a side to take. You can meet these
wants by offering the reader choices, showing the consequences of these choices, and laying out the good and the bad. A theme has
complexity. Share the different perspectives and your reader is more
likely to be swayed to side with your belief. Give a one-dimensional
argument and the reader will not be able to justify your claim when
faced with arguments against your claim. Give them some ammunition so
they can fight by your side. Preach to your readers and you will
probably loose them. Woo them – show, don’t tell.

Writers draw lines in the sand between good and bad. Some lines are clear,
while others are blurred. Regardless, there are at least two sides taken – otherwise why draw the line? If you only present one side of the argument, what are you arguing for or against? Show the many facets of your theme. Display other views, then prove why they are not the best choice. Clarify your theme by showing it through action, dialogue, and (if possible) mood or description. Each time you invoke your theme, take a different approach and it will enrich your book.

Typically, your main characters’ actions and words will support your theme. So
they will definitely come into conflict with people who believe differently. You can make these conflicts as subtle or as blatant as you like. In the case of “love conquers all”, maybe the heroine has a friend who believes some things are unforgivable or money is
more important than love. For a hero who champions personal freedom, he might come into conflict a system designed for the good of the many. Your main character may have to make choices that put his beliefs to the test. Use your imagination and you can come up with so many ways that your theme can generate conflict – and choices.

I think every book has a theme. You may not have started your book with
that theme in the front of your mind, but you do make certain assumptions based on your personal beliefs. A belief that appears throughout your book can be developed into a theme. To give a theme life, develop it like you would a character – good and bad, show don’t tell, place it in many situations and watch it react. Your book will be richer, your readers will thank you, and your characters will have a moral compass to guide them.

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