Part V of the 8-Part BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE Series
By now, you have a solid grasp of the importance of having a theme for your story, of keeping it personal and hidden (to avoid writing the dreaded Message Book), and of hanging on to the courage of your convictions in writing it the way you need to, knowing that you cannot ever please everyone, nor should you try.
That’s a good, solid foundation for writing a book that people will read, and then re-read, and then recommend to friends, and finally buy as presents for people they really like. Which is, after all, the writer’s ultimate goal—to write a story readers love so much they’ll share it with other people who will love it, too.
But you can still go deeper, and make the work richer and more compelling, by layering in subthemes.
[Brakes screech, and someone mutters, “Wait a minute. You finally sold me on themes. But SUBthemes? C’mon, already.”]
Subthemes are one of the best friends novelists have. (They’re far less useful for folks who write short stories, simply because subthemes add to the length and complexity of the story.)
Subthemes do three massively useful things for the writer crafting a novel—things a single theme alone cannot do.
1) They force the world of the story into three dimensions. If the book is focused on one theme—no matter how fascinating and wonderful that theme—and all the characters are focused on that one issue, and all the action revolves around that one issue, then, no matter how skilled the writer may be, the book will feel thin. Step beyond the borders of the main action, and no character has anything to do, or say, or think, or any reason to exist. Their lives are bordered by the main theme. By adding subthemes, you fill out your characters’ lives with needs and events that are important to them outside of and separate from the main story’s focus.
2) Subthemes add length and complexity. (I mentioned this above in the negative sense, but that which is the bane of the short story writer is in this case the boon of the novelist.) I receive the following question at least once a week from beginning and intermediate writers—“How do I make my story longer without padding it (and without trying to figure out more plot, because I’m out of ideas)?”
Subthemes by their very nature give you something extra to work into your plot—the unexpected pregnancy of the heroine adding complications while she is running for her life; the villain who in the midst of working mayhem discovers the mother he truly loves is dying; the harassment of the main character by the practical joker at work whose stupid jokes later become mixed up in the life or death issues already besieging the hero.
3) Subthemes allow you an extra opportunity to…um, for lack of a better word…vent. And get something good out of the bad things that have happened in your life. This is admittedly a strange side benefit, but just about every writer I know has SOME issue that repeatedly makes its way into his (or her) novels. The trick, always, is to keep YOUR issue out of the book, and make the issue really and truly related to the character, with different events and a different resolution.
So where do you find your subthemes?
1) Pick a subtheme that is distantly related to the issue driving your novel. If your theme is “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, and your story is about a father who comes to terms with the lingering death of his oldest kid after the boy contracts some terrible disease, a related theme would be how the father finds ways to bring happiness to the kid’s life (and his own) for whatever time they have left. Or how the kid makes a friend in the middle of his personal tragedy, or learns to do something he’s always wanted to do. Or how the father makes one thing his son has always wanted come true for him.(Man, this would be a grim book.)
2) Pick an unrelated issue, and give it, in disguised form, to primary or secondary characters. Using the example above, an unrelated issue that could become a theme would be how the father hangs on to a job when he’s both the sole provider (say the kid’s mother died, or just left) and his kid’s sole source of care and support; or how the kid sets out to win the science fair before he dies, and wins the respect of a teacher he previously hated.
3) Pick some train wreck in your personal life, THOROUGHLY disguise it, give it to people totally unlike the people who were involved in YOUR train wreck, change names, locales, and events… And then work though it the way you should have, or wish you could have, the first time. Using this method, the father could be going through your horrible divorce, but HE could find the good ending you didn’t get. Or he could give up his fantastic career as a professional poker player to be with his son, and could find something good from that loss, rather than the constant regret you have from a similar situation.
In every case, your priorities in using subthemes are to:
* give yourself more story than what you’d get if you only focused on your theme,
* give your reader something extra, and different, to take away from the book.
You and your story will benefit in more ways than you can imagine.
In BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE, Part VI, Interweaving Your Novel’s Themes And Subthemes, you’ll learn three of my favorite techniques for balancing themes and subthemes while writing your novel.
Full-time novelist Holly Lisle has published more than thirty novels with major publishers. Her next novel, THE RUBY KEY, (Orchard Books) will be on shelves May 1st. You can receive her free writing newsletter, Holly Lisle’s Writing Updates at http://hollylisle.com/newsletter.html