Thursday, 21 July 2011

What lies beneath?

Edge author Sara Grant grapples with how to weave theme into story

I’ve had a few opportunities over the years to read slushpiles for publishers, agents and competitions. Nothing struck fear into my heart like a synopsis or a cover letter that boasted the theme of the book: teach kids the importance of recycling, stop bullying, show the power of positive thinking, save the whales, etc. My concern – before I even read the opening line –was that the theme would be delivered like a jackhammer to my frontal lobe.

When it comes to including a theme in fiction, I think Renni Browne and Dave King said it best in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: “You don’t want to give your readers information. You want to give them experiences.”

In other words, show, don’t tell. It’s advice that writers hear over and over and over. It usually refers to summarizing the action rather than letting readers experience the drama. But I think it’s good advice when considering the theme or message of a novel. Let the theme evolve from the action in the story.

DARK PARTIES sprang from my experience immigrating to the UK from the US. I was acutely aware of  immigration debates on both side of the Atlantic. What is it to be American or British? What does it mean to have a global society? What’s lost and what’s gained? The country in DARK PARTIES closes itself off from the rest of the world under an electrified dome. When my story starts, its citizens have grown to look more and more alike and the society is slowly dying from a lack of diversity in genes and ideas. Although the power of diversity is at the heart of why I wanted to write DARK PARTIES, the word ‘diversity’ never appears in the novel.

At last year’s British SCBWI conference, Marcus Sedgwick said something along the lines of writing the whole book allows him one line someplace in the novel that illuminates his theme. This type of restraint – not preaching to your readers – keeps the theme from overshadowing the story. This economy of ‘message’ respects the reader.

I’ve written and read dialogue that sounds more like an advocacy pamphlet than a story. I try to remember to trust myself as a writer and trust my reader. Sprinkle the bread crumbs and hope they will follow.

The books that I love, books that stay with me long after I’ve finished the final page, books that linger for years in my psyche are books that not only have a compelling story but also change the way that I look at the world.

These stories open a dialogue with the reader. They show the reader the beautiful shades of grey of an issue or theme. I appreciate a story that highlights the complexity – all sides – of an issue but doesn’t give me an easy answer – because in life there so often isn’t one.

Themes aren’t essential to great novel writing. John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist: “Theme is like the floors and structural supports in a fine old mansion, indispensable but not, as a general rule, what takes the reader’s breath away.”

DARK PARTIES -- a dystopian novel for young adults -- by Sara Grant will be published by Orion in October. Find out more about Sara and her book at


  1. Lovely post Sarah. I write to take my readers on a journey they might not make on their own and I write to communicate. Usually something quite passionate.

  2. Great post, Sarah. I write about things I feel passionate about, too. I don't think in terms of themes or subjects, for me it's about the characters and their story.

  3. Fantastic post Sara and so true. The importance of not trying to shoe-horn issues/messages into a story was a theme of my PhD and hopefully something I achieved in the novel to accompany it. It is something close to my heart so will be sharing your post with all my students!

  4. Reviewers are partly to blame - they always mention the themes up front! Or the construction of character and/or the character's past history, not how lost they were in the story. Maybe that's why some writers think they need to put it in their approach letter.