Monday, September 30, 2019

Theme—The Abstract Element of Novel Writing

Edie here. Today I'm excited to introduce our newest columnist, Kathleen Neely. I've known this talented author for several years and so glad she'll be blogging regularly here on The Write Conversation. Be sure to give her a warm welcome!

Theme—The Abstract Element of Novel Writing
by Kathleen Neely @NeelyKneely3628

A writer makes many decisions when beginning a new novel. Characters. Structuring a plot. POVs. First or third person. Past or present tense. 

However, theme, perhaps the most important element, is often neglected. 

What is theme and why is it important? I want to share this because I knew nothing about literary theme when I began writing.  I’ve learned that thematic writing will improve a novel. I like to think of it this way. When I hear a message in church or an academic lecture, there is always a take-away. What’s the big picture component, the glue that holds all other pieces together? That’s the theme. It’s the reason behind the story. It’s typically subtle, understated, yet consistent. 

If a writer fails to identify a theme, one of two things may occur: 

A theme may emerge of its own accord. Perhaps the author didn’t consciously identify the big picture idea, but it developed naturally. Frankly, that’s the way I began writing. A plot idea, when structured, created a theme. The problem with that approach is the missed opportunities to deepen the impact of the novel. For example, The Least of These has three characters who are homeless. Since it was published, I’ve had numerous comments about its impact on the awareness of homelessness. Thinking back, I see lost opportunities to expand that. My attention to plot over theme actually hindered the development of what may have become a better plot. 

The other result of failure to identify a theme is worse. It can render a novel as superficial entertainment, the kind that you read then promptly forget. There’s no real take-away. No lasting impact. No big picture.’ For me, the best novels are those that I think about long after closing the final page. They hold the “why” element of a plot. 

So, how do we write with attention to theme? I mentioned subtlety and consistency. Let’s talk about subtlety. I have a friend who is a Christian with strong faith. She lives it, shares it, and spreads the love of Christ by her lifestyle. She’s an avid reader who told me she doesn’t like Christian fiction. Why? Because the theme is too often overtly stated with a strong hand. It feels forced and becomes a detriment to plot. I love Christian fiction when it’s done well with a gently woven message, authentic to the characters and plot. Readers really don’t want you to preach at them through the guise of a novel. 

Despite the subtlety of the theme, that big picture still needs consistency. Failure to recognize the theme may result in a character acting in a contrary manner, thus weakening the take-away. If theme is identified from the start of a novel, that’s less likely to occur. 

If you read Beauty for Ashes, you should easily identify the theme of unresolved guilt. It crippled Nathan despite his attempts to deny it. His fear of imprisonment has imprisoned him in a different manner. 

Choosing a theme doesn’t have to be difficult. It can be broad or narrowed down. Consider these comprehensive possibilities and how they might be refined: 
  • Love / Hate
  • Good vs. Evil
  • Guilt 
  • Forgiveness
  • Justice
  • Prejudice
  • Survival 
  • Rich vs. Poor
  • Identity / Coming of Age
  • Power 

So, before you choose the names of your characters and the setting of a novel, ask yourself a question. What’s the big idea, the take-away, the ‘why’ of this novel? What do I want readers to remember long after they read the final page? 

I’d love to hear what book you’ve read that had a lasting impact. If you’re remembering it today, I guarantee you the author gave attention to theme. 


Kathleen Neely has been a teacher, a principal, and an award-winning author. She currently has three novels available through Harbourlight, an imprint of Pelican Book Group, and numerous devotions on She is a member of Association of Christian Fiction Writers. She and her husband reside in South Carolina. When she’s not writing, she travels frequently to Pennsylvania, Florida, and any Carolina beach to spend time with family. You can connect with her on her website at


  1. Welcome aboard, Kathleen! I love this post. Finding the theme is not easy fo me, but I love the way you put it. That makes pinpointing it a little easier. Thank you!!

    1. Thank you. It's an abstract concept and one that alluded me earlier in my writing. Blessings to you.

  2. Excellent post and insight into creating theme in our stories.

  3. Thank you, DiAnn. Blessings to you.

  4. You make some great points, Kathleen. I don't write fiction, but I can certainly see the application in non-fiction. Theme ties everything together and maximizes the effect of our words. Welcome to The Write Conversation!

  5. Welcome! I enjoyed your post!! And, like Lori above, I don't write fiction, but can see obvious applications in my writing! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your feedback. Blessings to you.

  6. I've tried to write stories purely for entertainment value and can't do it. A theme has to develop for me to stay interested.

  7. It does add purpose. Thanks for your feedback. Blessings,