Friday, October 10, 2014

How to Provide Focus for Fiction by Jacqueline Seewald

Whether authors of fiction write short stories, plays, poetry or novels, theme is an essential component, just like characterization, plot and setting. The theme of a work is an idea or message that stretches throughout providing it with focus, cohesion and connection.

Themes are universal and therefore reoccur. Often they are sociological or cultural in nature. For instance, I recently read a thriller novel in which the theme was conspiracy theory, common in suspense genre. Fiction writers often pull their themes from nonfiction and then write faction. Dan Brown and Brad Meltzer are two very popular suspense authors who do this. Shakespeare used the underlying theme in his plays that appearances are deceiving. People and events are not what they seem to be. This works particularly well in theatre but just as effectively in mystery and suspense fiction.

Good fiction writing needs a cohesive theme to hold the work together. The lesson is generally about life or humanity and is preferably implied rather than stated outright. The show-not-tell rule works well with theme. One way to convey theme is through recurring use of symbolism. Hawthorne and Hemingway were both particularly talented in that regard.  So was F. Scott Fitzgerald. All three used color imagery/symbolism to denote and develop a theme.

In YA lit, the theme is often coming-of-age. However, there may be more than one theme, especially in a novel. My YA novel THE DEVIL AND DANNA WEBSTER published by Astraea Press is a coming-of-age novel, a book about family values,
a romance and an allegory:

.Romances concentrate on the theme of finding true love. For example, my short story collection BEYOND THE BO TREE is a series of stories themed on romantic relationships.

However, even with romance fiction there are often secondary themes. THE CHEVALIER, my prize-winning historical romance set mostly in the Scottish Highlands at the time of the second Jacobite revolt, is bound up with themes of war and political conflict:                 

Mysteries are about finding solutions and discovering the truth about puzzling situations such as solving murders and imposing order where there was chaos. There are often socially significant secondary themes in crime fiction. For example, in my co-authored novel THE THIRD EYE: A PINE BARRENS MYSTERY
 the theme of bullying is significant. Jim who is short for his age is bullied by an older boy. His search for a murderer also interconnects with the theme of bullying.

GONE GIRL coincidentally has a similar theme to my mystery suspense thriller THE BAD WIFE, underscoring the fact that you don’t always know or understand the person you marry.

All types of writing benefit from a theme which serves as a fundamental connective component. Fiction without a theme lacks focus, like sailing in a rudderless ship. It will eventually flounder and sink.

What themes do you as a reader or writer consider significant?

*Note: More of my blogs are available for reading at:


Susan Oleksiw said...

Excellent discussion, Jacquie. I think of theme also in terms of the growth of the protagonist--what does she want, what does she have to go through to get there. If she is being bullied, what does she have to do to stop it or overcome it. I also sometimes call this the "aboutness" of the story.

Paula Gail Benson said...

I agree. Jacquie, you've listed some significant themes and shown how they enhance a work as well as making it cohesive. I've found myself drawn to novels where families are not just blood relatives, but the people a character associates with in life.

D'Ann said...

Great topic!
For me, it's love trumps!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

Those are good points! We can approach plot and character from them as well.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Paula,

I've noticed that some of the most popular TV shows are ones where people are connected as either friends or relatives. It does lend cohesion.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, D'Ann,

I'm a romantic at heart too.

Nancy Means Wright said...

You're right, Jacquie, that a novel should have a theme, or focus. I recall a Kirkus reviewer calling my fifth mystery my "most focused yet," and wondering if s/he meant that my others were not focused! Perhaps s/he meant that I had too many sub-plots, and the latter can sometimes take away from the main theme. Funny, I've only just now thought about that! I'm glad that your excellent blog brought up the importance of a strong theme.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Thanks, Nancy, for commenting. It's always suggested that we have subplots in a novel, but we do have to be careful that they enhance the theme and main plot and not detract from the central focus.

Susan Coryell said...

Jacquie: I completely agree that theme is foremost in any worthwhile work of fiction. I usually begin with theme (self-esteem for EAGLEBAIT and cultural clashes for A RED, RED ROSE). For BENEATH THE STONES my theme is history is always with us. Theme is what makes a work of fiction "literary," I believe. Thanks for a thoughtful post!

Mary Fremont Schoenecker said...

I'm impressed by the way you connected the theme of each of your novels. Nice work, Jacquie. Wheneve It's my turn to lead my book club, I always start with "What is the theme in..." It's a good starter for discussion.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Susan,

I like your themes. For teens, self-esteem is a very important theme. Teens are unsure of themselves. Cultural clashes and the significance of history are also excellent literary themes.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Mary,

Book clubs are a great place to discuss themes in literature.

Carole Price said...

Jacquie, great topic. I always have a sub topic that needs to be resolved. One reader said I had too much going on, but I do write suspense and there's always an underlying problem to keep it interesting.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Novels usually do have subtopics. Some mystery writers use two diverse plot lines and then with a twist bring them together both through plot and theme. I'm always impressed with such talent.

Maggie Toussaint said...

Blogger ate my comment! Rats. I'll be succinct. Great topic. I write about justice and redemption.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Maggie,

Bad Blogger! Thanks for going to the trouble of reposting. Justice is a great theme for mystery fiction. Redemption? That's heavy stuff.