One of the downloadable worksheets here at Story Embers defines theme as “the broad moral topic or idea that your story addresses.” In general, you should be able to capture it with a single word, such as love, peace, kindness, courage, gratitude, or hope. If your manuscript is crafted well, anyone who picks it up will find clues in the title, word choices, plot, and symbolism to help them recognize the underlying meaning. But developing a relevant theme can be intimidating. How do you weave it into your novel in a way that’s both natural and impactful?
The newest character who’s taken up residence inside your mind is a vibrant being with compelling desires and deep emotions. But the instant you pluck him out and flatten him onto a page, he becomes limper than wet cardboard. You love this character. So how do you pump blood into his paper veins?
Killing a side character isn’t bad storytelling. But some writers (particularly those in the fantasy genre) tend to rely on death to catalyze character growth, which makes it predictable. Even worse, it trivializes the loss of a human being. As Christian authors, our stories ought to preserve and emphasize the value of life, and we can’t do that if we’re crucifying characters purely to keep the plot moving.
Although every genre has its own challenges, many writers shy away from setting their stories in the past because of the extensive research involved. Dozens of details need to be factual, including linguistics. Why are some historical novels so immersive? Because the authors understood how to translate their research into dialogue, narration, and action that convey the bygone era in its full splendor, without resorting to anachronisms that yank readers out of the story.
Action scenes strap readers in for a thrilling ride—or at least that’s what they’re supposed to do. Every millisecond must be engaging and accurately portray what’s happening. If the action crawls, it loses its impact or, worse, readers’ interest. And if the action hits light speed, readers crave more details, similar to the dissatisfaction of eating a fun-size piece of chocolate instead of a whole candy bar.
In high school, my creative writing teacher assigned an activity where each of us students had to go to a different section of the building and record everything we observed. But we weren’t supposed to blandly list people’s movements and conversations. The goal was to describe scenes how we thought a novelist would—and that one small shift in perspective yielded powerful results.
Back in 2012, I started writing my first fantasy/sci-fi novel. I chatted about the characters with my friends, enjoyed coming up with scads of different plot lines, and experimented with all kinds of tropes and techniques. But despite the effort I went to, my manuscript stayed in a constant state of flux. Beta readers, though quick to offer support and encouragement, couldn’t tell me why. Not until year five did I begin to see the truth.
Have you ever been writing a scene or chapter and something felt wrong? In the moment, you couldn’t name a specific detail that needed to be added, removed, or changed. That’s because singling out a problem as you’re pouring ideas onto the page is almost impossible. But even after you finished, you were still dissatisfied.
On the surface, writing seems easy. You plop into a chair, uncap a pen or power on your computer, and rack up a word count. Right? If you’re a hobbyist, that description is generally accurate. But, if writing is your profession, any burst of creativity also brings an explosion of related tasks. Tackling all these responsibilities can daunt even the most determined writer. But you can keep stress at bay by pacing yourself and developing a healthy amount of productivity in three crucial areas.
Characters are like a magnetic force that either pulls readers into the story or repels them. If they can identify with the cast, they’ll be more forgiving of other mistakes. But even a riveting plot, intriguing setting, and beautiful prose can’t save a story if the characters aren’t relatable. Readers need a reason to become emotionally invested, so all of your primary characters must be three-dimensional, not just your protagonist.