Navigation menu

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Novel Themes Are Not Just For English Class

Maybe it's because I'm in a book club or because I'm a writing teacher and a novelist, but lately, I've been thinking a lot about novel themes--maybe more than I did as an English major in college when I had a term paper due. If you're writing a novel, for any age audience, your story should be full of themes--universal themes--that readers can relate to. Besides reading fiction to escape real life, many readers also want to relate to and connect to the characters in a book, and this usually happens through the themes present in their "storybook" lives.

So here's a little exercise for you: grab a pen and a piece of paper and jot down what the themes are in your work-in-progress or in a book you have published. Here are some themes to get you started. Hold on to this list for a minute while I go on...

I'm currently reading Women In Sunlight by Frances Mayes, which has received mixed reviews. (Full disclosure: It did take about 50-60 pages to really get into it.) But I absolutely love it now. The reason why I love it is the themes that Frances explores in the novel. Yes, the characters are lively and the setting is remarkable (Italy!), but the themes of reinvention, renewing passion, friendship, motherhood, love, and community speak to me right now more than I ever thought they would. I find myself thinking about lines from the book constantly and even circling some--which is something I hardly ever do anymore while reading ficiton. I love this book because I love the themes, and I can't wait to discuss them in my online book club.

This morning, in a group chat, one of my friends shared a book she is reading, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. After my friend told us what it's about (a black married man is accused and found guilty of rape, when he was innocent), she said that Tayari does a great job of conveying deep emotion and of covering the topic of racism. So in this short discussion in a group chat--the theme of the book came out as an important point about the book. Maybe you can't relate to your husband being accused of rape and spending years in prison when he shouldn't have, but can you relate to racism? Can you relate to misogyny? Can you relate to the unfairness of being judged because of your religion or sexual orientation?

Themes bring us together as readers and writers. They help us think about issues in the world and give us a new perspective. They also help us feel like someone understands us enough to write about a theme that is also present in our lives.

You want this for your book. You want readers to feel like this about your story. So look at the list you just made--and by the way, themes don't have to always be so serious--fun can be a theme. (You can write a funny novel and have themes.) On your list, circle the ones that you think most people can relate to--universal themes. Now when you're ready to send this manuscript to an agent or publish it yourself, and then market it, those universal themes are needed because they are how you should talk about your book. To get your readers interested in a fiction story, in using your book for a book club, in securing 100 purchased copies for a summer school program, focus on your themes and how they will enrich readers' lives.

Don't worry--your writing has themes--even if you've never thought about them before. Characters' lives have themes--this is what fiction is all about (even memoirs have themes!). Just take some time to brainstorm your manuscript's themes, if they aren't coming to you immediately. We'd love to read what you've discovered about your work-in-progress in the comments below.

Margo L. Dill is a writer, editor, and teacher living in St. Louis, MO with her daughter and six-month-old lab mix puppy. Take her next class on novel writing by going here and signing up before August 2! Find out more about Margo at


  1. Margo--Your post made me think. I guess "The Massacre" has the themes of injustice, and (lack of) empowerment... along with self preservation.

    (But you might have a better idea than me ;)

    You have a puppy? How do you get anything done at home? You have TWO "babies" to fawn over. Enjoy.

  2. This is such a timely topic right now. I had to think about the universal themes I have in "Between" when I was uploading it to Wattpad. The platform wants you to put all these hashtags with your story so that people looking for certain themes can find it easily. I had my teen daughter, who reads and writes her own stories on Wattpad, help me. I used the following tags (with themes mixed in): abusive relationship, constellations, family secrets, ghosts, mystery, paranormal, suicide awareness, young adult, coming of age.

  3. Sioux: I have discovered something called: Doggy DayCare. She goes at least once a week, and then the next day she is pooped. I also work outside on the patio table a lot! This winter, she might be going to doggy daycare a little more. I think your themes are also: family strength, family love, community bond, strength of the human spirit, racism (definitely).

    Renee: This is so cool. I know you've written about Wattpad on here before but I hope you will do some follow-up posts. I'm interested to learn more about your experience, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. I love how you are taking charge of your career. Your writing deserves to be read by the public! :) It's good and you have a big message to tell.

  4. Thanks for the insight into themes and identifying their role for the author, and also when promoting a book. Great timing for me.


We love to hear from readers! Please leave a comment. :)