You can plan a novel many ways. Perhaps you begin with a glimpse of a character, a snippet of a scene, a thread of plot, or even a line of description. You have a spark of a story, and now you need to turn it into a cohesive plan.
You could start with fleshing out characters and discovering how they would act. Or you could create the world and politics first and watch how they affect your story. Or maybe you prefer to outline the plot itself, then see what characters and settings are needed. My favorite method, however, is to center the novel around theme.
What is your story’s point? To base the entire story off your theme, you need to identify the story’s purpose before you go into detail with the rest of the novel.
In fiction, the common mantra is “show, don’t tell.” This applies to a book as a whole and not just scenes and paragraphs. While a sermon tells a truth or gives instruction, a story shows lessons through characters’ actions and the results. Even if multiple issues are explored, the focus will usually be on an overarching moral topic. This is your theme.
A theme is a single word, be it love, courage, victory, etc. From there, decide what related question the novel will ask. In most cases, it will pertain to the protagonist’s arc. For the theme of love, the question could be anything from “Does love accept one’s enemies?” to “What is the worth of love?” to “Can love truly conquer all?”
Once you have a question, answer it. The more answers (good, bad, illogical) you come up with, the better. All of these can be applied to the arcs or foils of secondary characters, but first pick the right answer and expand on it to clarify the novel’s message. For a question of whether love is worth the pain it causes, the corresponding message might be that love is a gift and makes life worth living, regardless of the heartache.
Cool settings are fun, but this stage in planning is about more than exotic scenery. Like everything else in writing, your character’s world should propel your theme and novel forward.
Is the story about a person’s value? Create a culture that values citizens based on wealth, blood, or power. Are you writing about courage? Place the character in a land built on wars, with a history of peace and survival and men who either view cowardice as the deadliest vice or survival as the greatest virtue. Do you want to draw a line between what is worth fighting for and what should be suffered in silence? Depict a world where young men fight duels at the slightest provocation. Is your story’s message about love overcoming pain? Weave legends into your stars or establish legal systems that allow a stranger to take the punishment for an accused.
Whether the culture confirms a lie or a truth, you can make it an important part of your story, theme, and characters’ lives—from customs to history to small details like who bears weapons before a king.
Once you know your book’s theme and message, as well as the lies and truths that batter your characters on all sides, it’s time to concentrate on the characters themselves.
Even a character’s basic traits, such as build, hair color, and hobbies, can complement or contrast your theme. Are you studying a man’s worth? Maybe the character is scrawny or has a limp. Or maybe he’s talented and handsome, and you can contrast his outward appearance with his true merit (or not).
Are you exploring themes like peace or victory? How does a warrior’s dedicated skill or a prince’s hobby of learning the healing arts fit into life and the story as a whole? What do their relationships with others look like? What do they believe in relation to your theme and message, and how does it influence their lifestyle?
Then, of course, you have your protagonist’s arc. His arc will almost always be connected to your book’s message, whether it’s a positive arc where he learns the truth, a flat arc where he holds the truth but grows in it as he changes others, or a negative arc where he falls into darkness. Once his arc is settled, you can take all your other answers to the main thematic question and assign them to secondary characters. You won’t have room to cover every aspect of a theme, but through other characters you can delve into side issues the protagonist won’t encounter.
Not only should you script secondary characters to develop the theme, you also want to work with them to contrast the protagonist and cause conflict. What beliefs will clash with his own? What will tempt and lead him? What will happen so that he’ll recognize the lie simply by watching the actions of the character clinging to it?
Yes, outline your novel. It reduces rewriting time, but it will also help you intertwine your theme in the story itself.
Since a novel is meant to highlight a theme, your plot should already portray the main lie and truth and the climax of both in the final battle between good and evil. However, you should be able to show theme throughout your story, not just in the main plot line.
Revolve your subplots around the struggles of minor characters, and point their trials back to the main theme. With the theme of worth, the protagonist’s struggle might involve proving his name and being a good king, even as his definition of a wise ruler evolves. A subplot could be about a guard accused of cowardice who is determined to protect his king no matter what. A key defeat may hinge on a prejudiced general discovering the secret of the protagonist’s birth and using it to undermine him.
Even details can be thematic. Say you need a falling out between brothers. Don’t pick a random misunderstanding or argument. Have one brother stand up for someone of low birth or attempt to protect an undesirable. Or maybe they both desperately want to help prisoners captured by the enemy, but they have differing views on what love and loyalty entail.
There’s no one way to plan a novel, nor a magic formula to create a masterpiece. To write a thematically strong novel, however, you can follow some basic steps. As each point and layer builds upon another, you’ll end up with a work that beautifully and subtly illustrates your theme and keeps readers thinking for weeks.
Hope Ann likes to think herself a dragon-riding, griffin-taming founder of worlds and explorer of legends. Using chocolate, she bribes a wide ring of spies, from the realm leapers of Aslaria to the double agents of Elkbend, for their stories. She thrives on frost, steel, and the tears of her readers, which she secretly mixes into iced coffee. Deep in her hobbit hole, her actual life involves staying up too late writing, reading, researching stab wounds, and struggling to remember the difference between effect and affect. Based in Indiana, she is the self-published author of the Legends of Light series. Hope Ann helps other writers as a personal writing coach and the newsletter manager at Story Embers. You can download her free Beauty and the Beast prequel here.