“Themes” in Fiction: an Author’s Worst Nightmare, or Their Guiding Star?

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

So, you’ve written the first draft of your novel. You’ve put it in a drawer for a few weeks, and when you pull it out, you notice a big problem: it’s a sprawling mess. This is a pretty common scenario to find yourself in and can often lead to an anxious editing process. What do you cut out and what do you leave in?

The first thing you should do is take a deep breath. Then ask yourself is this: “What is my book about?”

In other words, what is your central theme? We’re not talking about the story, or the events of the plot: we’re talking about certain ideas ideas that apply to humanity at large. Themes can be as broad as the idea of ‘greed’ or as narrow as ‘the American banking culture of the mid 2000s’.

Once you’ve nailed down the heartbeat of your story, the next step is simple: which parts of your manuscript work towards this theme, and which parts distract from it? After that, it’s a matter of killing your darlings.

In a recent post at Reedsy, we asked ourselves some simple questions: what is the theme of a book? How can you identify themes in the books you read? How do they inform the plot and story? And how can you, the author, focus your writing towards a thematic goal?

I’d like to share with you an infographic we’ve created. Based on Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, the diagram aims to illustrate how a book’s themes are often implied through plot and character conflict.

To learn more about theme in fiction (and to test your author’s brain in our Theme Quiz) check out the full article, What is the Theme of Your Story? A Guide for Authors.

If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that one simple question. The one question that will act as your North Star the next time you edit your manuscript: what is this book really about?

Emmanuel Nataf is a founder of Reedsy, the world’s best community of book editors, designers and marketers. You can find him on Twitter @emmanuelnataf or @ReedsyHQ.