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Why Theme MUST be the Foundation of Your Novel by Martin Cavannagh

What are the hallmarks of an amateur novelist?

This is a question I get all the time and, of course, there are many answers: poor pacing, flat dialogue, a lack of believable character development. All of these things are a death kiss for any fiction writer.

However, even if all of these elements are in place and you have the most exquisite dialogue and beautifully realized characters, there can still be something missing in your novel. And very often, it relates to theme.

Theme is something that all readers will pick up on when reading a book, whether they realize it or not. At its core satisfying novels need to be about something — whether that’s something broad like ‘love’ or something as narrow as ‘corrosive corporate culture’. Even novels about gods or dinosaurs or space aliens will have something to say about the human condition — a vein that runs through the story that is implied through the characters’ conflicts and the unfolding of the plot.

Taking a lead from Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of writing, I’ve created the following diagram that illustrates the relationship between theme, story and plot.


Using the example of a few beloved novels, it shows how in every story there is an underlying human theme that can be expressed in under six words. In fact, that’s a challenge:

Take any story. It can be one of your favourite novels, or even a story you’ve written. Then write a one-sentence synopsis that encapsulates the central character conflict. From there, it only takes one simple step to define its central theme.

While having a believable character-based story is your most important tool for engaging your reader, that story must be rooted in a greater, universal human theme in order for your novel to fully resonate. It should be the very foundation of your novel.

Martin Cavannagh is a writer, blogger, and part of the team Reedsy, a professional publishing network that helps authors write and publisher better books.

See Martin’s more in-depth post on Theme over at Reedsy, HERE.

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