What’s the theme of your story?

CS Lakin

In her recent series of posts on theme, C.S. Lakin explores the importance of theme in your writing. She says,“without theme, plot is just a string of scenes, with little purpose. And although such a collection of scenes could be exciting to read, theme takes that plot to a much higher level and ultimately gives you a higher quality story.”

Your novel will be richer and a more rewarding experience for the reader if it is based on one or more themes. But, how does one identify or work theme into his or her story?

First, she suggests:  Ask Questions to Get to Your Theme

“Ask yourself, ‘Why did I write this novel? What excited me about the idea? What moved me to take this idea and form it into a concept with a kicker? Why do I love my protagonist? What excites me about the conflict in my story and why do all these things matter to me?’And my favorite: ‘Why am I willing to spend months of my life slaving over this story—what is compelling me to such madness?’”

If you can answer these questions, Lakin says, you will be able to answer what your story is really about, what the heart of your story is. And that is your theme.

“Themes are not just topics or subjects . . . You might say your book is about abortion or capital punishment. That is just the topic (idea). Ask: What are you saying about that topic through your characters? Whether you are taking a strong stance or none at all, in order to have a story with a plot, with characters who care about something, you will have theme.”

Theme Is Intrinsically Connected to Concept, Protagonist, and Conflict

“If your concept involves astronauts on a dangerous mission to Mars, for example, and you are writing action/adventure/suspense, what is your theme(s)? Well, that depends on your other pillars: the concept, the protagonist and his goal, the central conflict with high stakes.

“Let’s look at the protagonist’s objective in the movie Red Planet (also the collective goal of all the characters)—which is to get to Mars to see if the experiment to grow algae is a success. That may or may not present a viable or engaging theme. With that idea, you might have a purposeless string of scenes as they get to the planet (or not) and face danger or obstacles.

“But here’s the concept and kicker for that movie: It’s 2055. Earth can no longer feed all its inhabitants, so this is a desperate measure to save humanity (great concept and kicker, danger/conflict with high stakes,a clear goal). By setting up this story with three strong corner pillars, it makes the way for great themes. How so?

“Interestingly, there are a lot of themes going on in Red Planet, which makes it a rich and fascinating story in addition to the basic action/adventure going on as one thing after another goes wrong and the characters die one by one. The plot is exciting and well structured, which is key.

“What the screenwriter did to make the way for themes galore in this story was to create a cast of characters from different scientific disciplines, each passionate about something that clashes with other characters’ passions. When you have characters all conflicting because of their worldview, beliefs, morals, and priorities, you have the ingredients for rich themes in your story.

Theme Emerges in Conflict

“In Red Planet, the scientists must struggle to overcome the differences in their personalities, backgrounds, and ideologies for the overall good of the mission. Note that they share a common goal, but each has different passions and beliefs. When their equipment suffers life-threatening damage and the crew must depend on one another for survival on the hostile surface of Mars, their doubts, fears, and questions about God, man’s destiny, and the nature of the universe become defining elements in their fates. In this alien environment, they must come face-to-face with their humanity.

“Plot shows the story; theme is the story. Plot is the vehicle for theme.”

The above excerpts are glimpses into some of the insight Ms. Lakin brings to making your novel stronger and richer through an understanding of what the theme of your work is and how to effectively work it into the plot and characters. C.S. Larkin is a writer and freelance editor whose blog, Live, Write, Thrive provides excellent advice for new and experienced writers and includes extremely helpful checklists to make your writing the best it can be.

 Our thanks to Ms. Lakin for her permission to reprint this material from her blog.








If you thought writing your book was tough, wait until you try to get published!

The truth is publishers and agents are very risk averse. They get hundreds of submissions, and their first priority is to look for reasons to reject a manuscript .  They have plenty to choose from, so as soon as they can find anything to bounce your ms. off their desk and into the hopper they will reject it.  You may get a form rejection letter from them , or, more likely, you will never hear from them at all.  And, more it may very well have had nothing to do with your writing ability.

It could be as simple as you didn’t use the standard 12 pt. font (either Times New Roman or Courier),  or you didn’t follow their submission guidelines, or they read a couple of pages and you had made first-time author boo-boos.

I can’t guarantee you’ll get published, but having been a publisher, editor and writer myself for over 40 years, I do know some things you absolutely must do if you want to get published, even if you are going to self-publish. Following are 7 steps I feel are critical to get your manuscript’s foot in the door.

1. READ, READ , READ  This is common and good advice for any writer.  The more you read, especially in your own genre, the more you as a writer will start analyzing and realizing what makes a book work or not. Also, read books on writing. There are a lot of excellent ones available.  The bible for fiction writers is Stephen King’s On Writing. You must read that, but there are many other great books, or even blog articles online that will help you develop the craft of writing.

2. POV  One of the biggest red flags in a manuscript is point of view handling.  90% of new writers’ work that I see doesn’t properly handle point of view.  You should stick to one character’s point of view per section.  If your main character is John and he is “seeing Jane through his eyes, feeling his heart pounding and a squishy feeling in his stomach”, you can’t say, “And Jane was feeling the same sensations, only with a sense of trepidation…” Read more

5 Dangerous Habits to Avoid in Fiction Writing


If you want to get published, and more importantly, read, there are certain things in a manuscript or book that will turn off a publisher or reader. A must-read for any fiction writer is Stephen King’s On Writing. Whether you are a fan of his or not, his advice is spot on and the book is a Bible for me and most writers. I and other speakers on writing always advise writers to be careful about making the mistakes that reveal a writer’s lack of knowledge about the craft.

I recently read a great article on the Scribendi website that identifies 5 habits to avoid in your writing. The things they identify are those which I and other publishers zero in on when considering manuscript submissions. If we see violations of these the manuscript usually ends up on the kill pile. Pay attention to these factors in your writing and you will have a stronger, tighter and better paced manuscript which will have a higher potential for being published and appreciated. Here is the Scribendi article:

1. Generic verbs and nouns

Imagine trying to paint everything in the world using only four colors. The results would probably look pretty generic. When you are a writer, yourlanguage is your medium. People, places, and things (i.e., nouns) have names, and it’s your job to know what they are. Precise nouns work wonders in fiction writing because nouns have connotations or meanings that go beyond their dictionary definitions. If one character gives another character flowers, tell readers what kind of flowers. Are they tulips or columbines or snapdragons or peonies? This information could hint at what time of year it is (tulips are pretty scarce in September) and could also tell us something about the character who gives the flowers. Four dozen roses are expensive—does this person have money or like to show off? A bouquet of wildflowers might have come from the character’s backyard—perhaps this person likes to garden.

A similar thought process should be applied to the selection of verbs. There are at least 12 synonyms for the verb to laugh, and each one evokes a specific image. A character could express amusement by cackling, chortling, chuckling, giggling, guffawing, snickering, sniggering, tittering, crowing, whooping, simpering, or smirking. Precise verbs contribute greatly to characterization. If a man walks into a room, all readers know is that he has entered. He could be anybody. But if he limps in, right away readers want to know if he is old or injured or tired. If he gallops in, readers know he is energetic or excited about some piece of news. If he swaggers, readers wonder if he is full of himself or perhaps just drunk.

2. The exception: He said, she said

Reading good dialogue makes readers feel like they’re actually listening in on a real conversation. Because of this, it can be very disruptive if the author keeps butting in to tell readers that the speaker intoned or declared or asserted or retorted. It could seem that using “said” repeatedly in dialogue tags is repetitive, but in fact the little word is so inconspicuous, it just fades into the background—which is exactly what we want when we’re trying to listen in on a good conversation. The rare deviation is fine (asked, in particular, seems to be okay once in a while), but if you find yourself using a colorful synonym for every dialogue tag in your manuscript or screenplay, you may be doing more harm than good.

3. Adjective/Adverb-a-rhea

Sometimes a well-placed and specific adverb or adjective strengthens or clarifies an image. However, many writers, in a misguided attempt to make their fiction writing descriptive, overuse these words. If you master the use of precise nouns and verbs (see tip number one), you’ll almost certainly avoid the bad habit of propping up a weak verb or noun with a host of intrusive modifiers, as in the following example:

Carrying a steaming and fragrant mug, she walked angrily and loudly into his office.

Why write that, when you could have simply said:

Carrying her peppermint tea, she stormed into his office.

The second sentence actually gives us more information using fewer words.

Furthermore, when editing your manuscript, be especially wary of adjectives that don’t actually convey much…

interesting, lovely, exciting, beautiful

…and adverbs that introduce redundancy…

stereo blared loudly (blared implies high volume)

scrubbed vigorously (scrubbed implies intensity)

…or contradict the meaning of the verb or adjective they modify.

slightly pregnant (with pregnancy, you either are or aren’t!)

very unique (something is either unique or not unique)

4. Inconsistent point of view

An author of fiction must choose the perspective, or point of view, from which a story will be told. In first-person narration, one character tells the story in his or her own voice (using “I”). Third-person narration can be either limited (an objective narrator tells the story by focusing on a particular character’s thoughts and interactions) or omniscient (the narrator sees and hears all). No single point of view is better than another, but once you have made a choice, be consistent. If your story is told in first-person, then remember that the narrator must be present in every scene he describes to the reader; otherwise, how would he have the information? If a limited third-person narrator who hears only Tom’s thoughts tells the story for the first four chapters, the reader should not suddenly be privy to the mailman’s daydreams in chapter five.

Of course, there are some fine examples of novels that experiment with point of view by switching between narrators. But even in these stories, some kind of predictable pattern is imposed for clarity, such as a change in narrator from one chapter to the next but not within a chapter.

5. Unnaturally expositional, stilted, or irrelevant dialogue

Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound like the way people actually talk (without all the ums and ahs and boring digressions, of course)? Do the characters rattle off factual information you are trying to jam into the story? Are they talking about the weather? Because if they’re talking about the weather, you’d better have a good reason for it. Otherwise, the reader will feel bored, and a bored reader closes his or her book and turns on the TV.

All this advice is important, but by far the worst habit a fiction writer can develop is the habit of giving up too easily. Keep writing every day.

Their final advice is the same I offer to all hopeful writers. I use Richard Bach’s quote: “A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

This article used by the gracious permission of Scribendi and can be found at their website. Scribendi is a professional editing company that offers a variety of editing and proofreading services.