Starting Your Novel With Theme: 3 Strengths and 3 Challenges

Image: a castle on a mountaintop above the cloud line.

Today’s post is by regular contributor Susan DeFreitas (@manzanitafire), an award-winning author, editor, and book coach. She offers a first 50-page review on works in progress for novelists seeking direction on their next step toward publishing.


In my work as a book coach, I’ve found that writers of fiction generally fall into three camps: those who start with character, those who start with plot or story concept, and those who start with theme.

In part one of this series I addressed those writers who tend to start with character—those who often start with a certain voice in their head, or an idea for a certain type of protagonist. In part two, I addressed those writers who tend to start with plot—writers for whom a new project may arrive in the form of a story concept, or a certain angle on a genre they’d like to explore.

Over the course of the last twelve years, I’ve worked with hundreds of writers, and the vast majority of them fit into one of those two camps. But there is a third kind of writer as well, the writer who starts with theme.

These writers tend to be driven by a desire to explore themes that have been meaningful in their lives—dreams, for instance, or the concept of generational trauma. Or they may want to explore elements of their own personal history, or their attraction to a certain landscape or setting.

Whatever the initial seed of the novel is, writers who start this way tend to proceed by feel, discovering both the characters and the situation of the story as they write. This process of discovery tends to draw on the writer’s intuition to such an extent that the writer herself often has to extrapolate from what she’s uncovered in order to figure out how everything connects.

If that sounds like a bit of a mysterious process, it is. But it can also make for very compelling fiction, for the following reasons.

Strength: Meaning is “baked in”

Writers who start with character or plot often have to look for themes that arise in their work in order to give the story a sense of being about something bigger than just the characters or the events of the plot. Those who start with theme don’t have that problem: their stories are built around themes that are meaningful to them, and therefore have a good shot at being meaningful to the reader as well.

This is true even when their stories simply explore time periods or landscapes, because there is always something specific in those time periods or landscapes that the author finds deeply meaningful—hence their attraction to exploring them. This sense of meaning tends to come through in the story, in a way the reader can really feel, and that’s a powerful thing.

Strength: There is no other story like this story

Stories built around theme tend to be deeply personal, and as such, unique in the marketplace for fiction.

Which is to say, there may be many novels set in the 1930s, but there is no other novel like Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions, because that novel is built around Walter’s family history and fascination with the working-class politics of the era.

There may be many novels about marriages on the rocks, but there is no other novel like Haruku Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is built around dreams, and the question of whether we ever truly know ourselves or each other.

And there may be many portal fantasies, but there are no other novels like those of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, because those novels were inspired by Vandermeer’s fascination with the uncanny flora and fauna of Fiji, where he spent much of his childhood.

Strength: Aesthetic appeal

Along with that sense of uniqueness, novels built around theme tend to have a strong, particular aesthetic that run through them. It’s not just about who the characters are or what’s happening in the story, it’s about how the whole thing feels.

Those aesthetics might be associated with a strong sense of place, or a particular moment in time; or they may reflect certain irreducible aesthetic attractions on the part of the author (as in Murakami’s dreams and Vandermeer’s uncanny nature in the examples above). If every story is about the ride as much as the destination, that’s even more true in stories like this.

That said, writers who start with theme definitely face a few challenges.

Challenge: A million revisions

Because writers who start with theme often have to discover both the novel’s characters and plot as they write, they often wind up having to work through draft after draft to create a publishable manuscript.

The metaphor I use for this is that it’s like building a castle in the clouds; that castle is a beautiful, unique, compelling thing, but it’s out of reach for most readers. Writers who start this way often have to do a lot of work to build a sturdy foundation under that castle in order for readers to have any hope of reaching the front door.

Challenge: Workshopping and critique

How do you workshop a castle in the sky? How do you critique it? How do you provide meaningful feedback at all? These sorts of manuscripts, while in progress, tend to present a fascinating but impenetrable exterior, offering workshop peers and critique partners very little to work with, in terms of how to offer meaningful feedback on it.

This can make the writer feel like their work will never be understood by others, and despair of getting the sort of feedback that will help them build a sturdy foundation under that glittering edifice—especially when they’re just starting out.

Challenge: Publishing

For the same reasons that novels like this are hard to workshop, novels like this can be hard to pitch, because they don’t fit into any neat and tidy categories. Describing the novel’s plot often doesn’t offer a good sense of what it’s really about, nor does simply describing the characters and their dramas. As a result, novels like this can be a tough sell, especially for a debut author.

The good news is that all the same things that can initially work against the author with a novel like this can work for them later on, because when such books are published, they tend to elicit a strong reaction from their readers. People become deeply passionate about books like this, and tend to advocate for them in a way they would not for many of the other novels they read in the course of a year.

Like the challenges faced by other types of writers, none of these is insurmountable—but as with so much of life, it helps to know who you are and what you’re working with in terms of your own process rather than expecting “one size to fit all.”

Do you consider yourself a writer who starts with character, one who starts with plot or story concept, or one who starts with theme? I’d love to hear from you in the comments on this, along with one significant breakthrough you’ve had with your own process.

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