Novel Bits and Pieces: Theme


I used to just write my novels and never worry about crafting a message. I mean, they were just supposed to be fun reads, I wasn’t trying to change the world or examine my navel. But after reading Larry Brooks’s Story Physics and Story Engineering, I started to look at my written creations differently. I started to break them down into manageable chunks and pick apart their insides as I tried to figure out how they worked. Or more appropriately in my case, didn’t work. I mean let’s face it, I’ve written ten novels and not one of them has been a best seller. Not even close. So I had to be doing something wrong.

I’ve slowly come around to understanding theme and now I won’t start without knowing what my novel’s theme is. Once you know your one or two word theme, you can have it in the back of your mind when you’re plotting your story. It may even cause you to restructure events or change character motivations to stay on theme. While you’re writing your novel your theme gestates in the background of your subconsciousness waiting to be inserted into action or dialog as needed. Often times you don’t even know you’re doing it until the first draft is over and then you go looking for where the story reinforces your theme. Then you see that your brain was doing more than just putting words on the page, it was secretly making those words bring out your theme.

This all results in a narrative that feels right when the reader consumes your book. She probably won’t be aware of it, but when she puts it down after finishing it, she’ll have this warm glow inside. At least that’s how I like to think a good novel affects it’s reader. Of course both of my readers are males and I’m hoping they decide to go out and buy the next book in the series. Or at least stare lovingly at the awesome starships on the cover, which in turn might lead them to buy another shiny cover.

For my current WIP – K’nat Trap, I have established that the theme is simply Trust. The extent to which characters trust each other, determines how successful they will be in the story. It’s not just the main characters either. I carry the theme down into the minor roles too. It’s a novella, so there are less characters with arcs as in a typical novel, but even the bit characters have to learn to trust. Or they don’t learn and suffer the consequences.

My wife always gets mad at me and the boys when she reaches over to put something she’s been cooking into our mouths. She always gets mad when we insist on knowing what it is or looking at it first. Her argument is that she wouldn’t ever give us something that wasn’t good. So we should just trust her and eat whatever she hands us in the steaming spoon. She’s never given me something nasty tasting so you’d think I would have learned that by now. Still, I have to look at it before I eat it.

There are many forms of trust in life and the more ways I can work examples of trust into the story helps solidify my theme.


Novel Themes

My first novel had a theme. It was Teamwork. Starstrikers was about a Sci-Fi Special Forces team so that made perfect sense. So far, all the books in my Star Saga series have a theme that can be expressed in a single word. Here are the three books of the Starforgers Trilogy. Two have been written and the third will be written this year.

Starforgers, Book 1 – Revenge

The Rising, Book 2 – Death

Counterattack, Book 3 – Redemption

The themes are directly related to the main character’s story arch. But if you examine the plots of these books you will find more than just the main character mirrored in the theme. Often secondary characters also reflect the theme and the plots all back up the theme with a story centered on it. This is not by accident. When I planned out this trilogy, I knew who the central character was, and I knew what needed to happen plot wise in all three books so that her character would have an arch.

When I wrote Starforgers I darn sure knew it was all about revenge. If you don’t have a theme in mind when you go into a novel, its not something that you can bolt on later. It becomes part of the story DNA and it also shapes your main character. If you have read Starforgers, think back to the story and see how many times the main character has to deal with revenge. It’s almost too heavy handed. I mean, I really hit the reader over the head with it multiple times. From the moment we first meet the heroine, she’s looking for a bad guy who she believes has killed her husband. In fact, she’s been looking for this bad guy for many years. It’s shaped her character and given her a rugged determination that carries her through all the horrible things she will face in this book. Revenge has tempered her steel and fuels her actions throughout the book. It also leads her down a dark path that she later has to come to terms with. That’s what the next two books are all about. The main character dealing with the results of her revenge from the first book.

The Rising has gone through many iterations before settling on the current, final version. First it was just going to be about a trial. Then it was going to also include a whole subplot about the Votainion Empress. Before long it was turning into an epic the size of a Fantasy novel. I was straying off my theme and I had completely left out my heroine! Much debate and thought later and I started focusing the story on the main character and how events in the plot affected her. Or perhaps more like how she could help move the events forward and make them relevant to her. Once I kept that theme in mind, and focused the story through the lens of the main character, things started to fall into place. More than one person in the book is forced to come to terms with Death, the novel’s theme. But none more than the hero. And how she deals with it causes her problems that she will eventually have to solve in Book 3.

I can’t go into much more detail about the themes for books that nobody has read yet. But I did want to stress the importance of having a theme and letting it help guide your story and make the story mean something in the end.



Behind the Page – Origins of the Votainions

(Because “The Big Idea” has already been done. This post is about the Ideas that underline my novels, specifically the Star Trilogy.)

good old rednose mhobl via Compfight

When I started to think about the origins of my bad guy race, the Votainions, I decided that they would be as close to human as possible. I wanted to be able to show their point of  view in the novels. In order to do that, I needed my readers to be able to identify with them almost as closely as they identified with the human characters. I couldn’t do that as easily if they were truly alien, aliens.

The Star Trilogy stories are all set in a fictional universe that can best be described as being like the Star Wars universe. In other worlds, I don’t make direct references to human history. Unlike say, Star Trek where the story is set in the distant future and could possibly come true one day. This explains why my characters never reference particular historical details.

I’ve always been fascinated by human history. I’m not talking about written history, but rather archaeological history. There were times in our distant past when there were more than one hominid species roaming the earth along side of homo-sapiens. Either through environmental change or extermination, we now only have one species on earth. But what if a sophisticated race of aliens had visited earth when there were for instance, neanderthals and humans both living beside each other, and took the neanderthals away. Imagine if these advanced aliens deposited the neanderthals on some other planet, light years away from earth. Finally, imagine if the neanderthals then evolved into a space faring civilization and started to make their way towards earth.

This is the premise of the whole series. The Votainions are my neanderthals and the humans of the Alliance are my advanced earthlings, as it were. Again, I make no reference to earth or to neanderthals directly, I just imply that this is where the bad guys originated. By placing the Votainions on another, distant world, they set into motion events that would lead to them evolving slightly different than they would have had they been left on Selene, my universe’s home planet. This is why the Votainions are blue skinned and more violent by nature than the humans, otherwise they are described pretty much the same as if they were neanderthals.

If you were paying attention back there, you may have noticed that I had some Ancient Astronauts enter the mix. Yeah, those stories have always fascinated me. But the way they were handled in Prometheus was totally unbelievable for me. My “Ancients” as they are even so boldly referred to, are never actually seen. They set in motion events that by chance result in a war between the humans and the Votainions. But if both races are from the same planet and are 98% the same in terms of their DNA; why should they even be fighting? They are practically cousins. This is what the final book in the trilogy is all about. It’s a coming to terms with their history and reconciling their bloody past. In fact the overall theme of the novel is Reconciliation.

That alone would be a decent central conflict for the novel, but I have added more complexity. What about the sentient androids in my universe, the Silicants? That, my friends will have to wait for another post.