Where Writers’ Ideas Come From: Theme

There’s a place in the world for books whose sole aim is to entertain, but these books often don’t have staying power. Shakespeare, Dickens (the inspiration for the names of our kittens, Will and Charles), Twain—wrote stories that were popular and, because they explore universal themes, have continued relevance to readers today. Modern authors tackle difficult themes too: Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison. As do mystery/thriller writers: Steph Cha, Walter Mosley, Don Winslow.

Author Philip Pullman’s Insight

In a recent Guardian essay, author Philip Pullman discussed how he arrives at a theme. His works have themes, in retrospect, but “that aim or purpose, or theme, wasn’t where I started. It’s far too abstract.” He allows as how some successful writers can start with a theme and develop a novel to illustrate it. Not him. “I don’t start with a theme in mind at all,” he says, “but with characters in particular situations. If I’m lucky a theme becomes visible to me before I reach the end of the story, so I can go back and cut, or shape, or move, or amplify, or reduce various parts of the text in order to clarify the theme I’m beginning to see.”

I was so happy to read this, because I’d been feeling rather dim that I didn’t recognize sooner the theme of the novel I’ve been working on. I thought of it as a simple crime novel, in which a man fails to do something important and fears he’ll be found out. He torments himself about this, but before he can substantively confront his failing, a great many more bad things happen, to him and to those he loves. Not until I was writing query letters (better late than never) did I realize the story is about a man trying to regain self-respect. (You’ll have to read the book to find out whether he succeeds.) In other words, a theme can reveal itself organically out of the work.


This recognition was a surprise. I hadn’t counted on being skilled enough to create something around a Theme. Even the idea sounds like a prescription for deadly prose. However, I shouldn’t have been wary. As Donald Maass, in his excellent advice to writers suggests, no matter what the specific content (time, place, characters, plot) of a novel is, these specifics need to connect to something larger, to the universal. That’s what creates the emotional connection for the reader.

We may not have the experience of being stranded on Mars, but we know what it is to feel abandoned, to keep our spirits up by busily plugging away at tasks that are manageable. We may not have the experience of living in Margaret Atwood’s Gideon, but many women (at least) know what it is to play eternal second-fiddle to another group of people, to be systematically devalued. We may not have the experience of my character, architect Archer Landis, who discovers a murder and doesn’t report it, but we know what it is to feel shame.

For the past few Thursdays, my posts have examined influences in my crime novel, tentatively titled Four Proofs of Courage. I’m delighted to report that it is under contract with Black Opal Books, and when I have the schedule, I’ll share it. I appreciate the readers who have told me they like these posts. I hope you do too and would love to hear from you. Previous posts in “Where Writers’ Ideas Come From”:
Why an Architect?
Who Are These Women?
Seeing the World Through a Character’s Eyes
What Kind of Trip Is It?
Slivers of Backstory

Photo: pasja1000 for Pixabay

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