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    Theme: Finding Your Focus

    "Wow, that book was so awesome it touched my heart!" Exclaimed the stranger at the library the other day. I looked over at her and grinned to myself. That's what I want my book to do. If nothing else, as a writer, I want anything I write to have a lasting effect on my reader. In order to do this, the work must have a central idea or focus: something the reader can bite into and chew on for a little while. This focus comes in the form of the Theme of my novel.

    We will take a look at Theme and how development of the Theme helps our book to have focus and leave a lasting impression on the minds and hearts of our readers.

    What is Theme? Most of us have struggled with this term since we began as earlier writers in freshman high school English class. The most helpful definition I've found for this word comes from Ethel Herr in her book, An Introduction to Christian Writing. She suggests that you ask yourself, "What one thing are you trying to tell your readers?" She goes on to advise writers, "State [your Theme] in a single, simple sentence."

    Joanne Reid in her Internet series, How to Write a Novel in Ten Weeks (, goes on to remind us that Theme is also related to genre. She writes, "If you are writing a romance novel, your approach to the [Theme of] love should be positive. Otherwise, you will be writing fiction that you don't believe in." And, if you don't believe in your fiction, neither will your reader.

    Another important piece of advice comes from Robin Hemley in her book, Turning Life into Fiction, "What we are ultimately after is focus -- a handle -- something the reader can grab onto, a reference point, something that makes us feel we're in good hands with someone who knows where he's headed." Think of Theme as your reader's lifeline, and you are reeling them into the heart of your story. The Theme keeps them hanging onto your story until your books conclusion.

    Spend some time and think about the focal idea of your work, the center of your novel, and narrow that idea to a single, simple concise sentence. Once you've nailed down your Theme and established your focus, you can go into the stage of developing it. According to Philip Gerard in his book, Writing a Book that makes a Difference, you should be constantly developing and redeveloping your Theme as you write your novel. And, once you have fully developed the focus of your novel, you should "develop [your Themes] the way a photographer develops film -- clarifying, sharpening, creating nuances of highlight and shadow, composing the elements so that the eye is persistently drawn back to the center." That center is the focus of your work. That center is the ideas or ideals that you want the reader to take away from your novel and keep in their heart long after the book has been closed and returned to the shelf. How can this focus and them be developed? Philip Gerard offers several suggestions for developing Theme and maintaining focus of your literary work.


    According to Gerard, repetition is the simplest tool the writer can use to develop Theme. Repetition "creates emphasis" and "provokes memory." In essence, it lets the reader know what is important to us in our story and it makes sure that the importance is burned in their brain for future recollection.

    Resonance and Cumulative Meaning

    Once we've established the memory through repetition, resonance and cumulative meaning can be used to keep these memories pounding quietly in the reader's chest. Each memory builds on another as the action rises and falls and the cumulative Theme is established. Text and Subtext, Story Elements and Melodrama, Gerard reminds us "there has to be a good story happening on the page before that story can mean something deeply significant between the lines." As writers, we sometimes have this wonderful thematic idea that we know would touch others so deeply, but we cannot seem to find the concrete story in which to relay our Theme. Once again, we must find our focus. Center your story on the subject that ignited your passion to write your novel. Use plain concise language, especially when your scene is complex, it enables your reader to "see" your Theme more clearly. Use subtext to give your action artistic meaning, so that your reader can see your Theme floating just below the surface of the main action.

    Time and Story

    When writing your novel, you must have a sense of time and use time to develop your story. According to Gerard, time comes in two forms, a sense of duration and a sense of clock. Sense of clock depends on sense of duration and the longer the story the more each element matters. You must have a beginning, middle, and an end or your novel will be incomplete. You should know the chronology of your story and where you are going before you begin writing, or how will you know when you have reached the end.

    Memory and Emotion

    Memory and emotion are key elements to thematic development. According to Gerard, "the words are meant to trigger associations from the readers own life -- to act as emotional cues [and] recall a personal experience." We know we have written a good story when something we wrote conjures up memories of our reader and emotions that they try to suppress. We know that the Theme of our work has left an impression on their hearts and minds.


    "Repetition plus variation" is how E.M. Forster defines the rhythm of the novel. As we have said, repetition is the writer's greatest tool. Repetition plus variation creates rhythm and gives the reader cues to what is to come in the story. According to Gerard, these cues are the "exact parts the reader needs to have in the forefront of his mind to comprehend the scene in front of him." This creates a rhythmic resonance that gives the reader a personal interest in the story and keeps him hanging on until the end.

    Each of these elements helps your story to have focus and continuity. If you can keep your focus, your reader will get interested, stay interested and keep reading. Find the focus of your story, write it down concisely, and then use some of Philip Gerard's ideas to develop it. You may just find yourself on the library shelves one day very soon.

    Copyright © 2004 Lana Straub

    Lana Straub is the Assistant Editor of She is a featured columnist for the Water Well Journal and has written for Writer Online. Her current work in progress is Reconciling Ruth, a novel based on her grandmother's life. Lana lives and works in Stanton, Texas.

    The Authentic Self: Journaling Your Joys, Griefs and Everything in Between by Shery Russ

    WEEKLY WRITES: 52 Weeks of Writing Bliss! Kick start your imagination, ignite your creativity, and begin your journey towards becoming an outstanding writer.

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    For excerpts, reviews and what you need to do to receive the 2 free e-books, Write Memories and sign up for free e-mail courses, just head on to the Weekly Writes Book Official Site. (Clicking on the link will open a new window.)


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