Bring Your Novel To Life:
Burying Your Novel's Message
by Holly Lisle
Part III of the 8-Part BRING YOUR NOVEL TO
In the first two articles, we've explored how essential
it is to have a theme to give your novel direction, and
how to find those themes that will resonate with you.
You'd think that once you have a theme, you could just
sit down and write your book about that, and you'd bring
powerful emotions and passionate storytelling and
compelling, page-turning action to your tale---but it
just ain't so.
If you just write your theme, what you'll have is a
harangue. A message book. Something that will have the
readers who agree with your precise point of view nodding
along---whether it be "Global warming is going to
destroy the planet" or "Global warming is a
pile of cow-flops"---and readers who hold any other
point of view bouncing your book of the nearest wall and
never buying anything else by you, ever.
So now you bury your theme. You write about something
utterly unlike the theme you fought so hard to come up
with in the first place.
One of you just went, "Waaaaaait a minute! If I
write about something besides my theme, how are people
going to get my message? How are they going to know that
global warming is evil/ irrelevant/ actually the dawning
of a new ice age? How will I convince them that I'm
They won't know, and you won't convince them. It's as
simple as that.
The theme is there for YOU. Your job as a novelist is to
tell a story that entertains your reader, that makes him
think, that haunts him long after he finishes the last
page---maybe even that STILL haunts him long after he's
read the whole thing for the fourth or tenth or twentieth
time. I get letters and emails from readers who have done
that, and it's great. They frequently tell me what they
got out of the book, too, what hidden meanings they
found, what they took away from the story.
Funny thing is, they never find what I put in there.
That's okay. They found something that mattered to THEM,
that changed the world for THEM. So I did my job.
If you want to send a message, buy an ad.
If you want to create resonance, you work your theme in.
If you want to have people love your book and treasure it
for what it meant to them, you bury that theme so deeply
only you will ever know what it was.
Figure out the key elements of your theme.
I wrote one book the theme of which was "if the
Democrats and Republicans don't recognize each other
isn't the enemy and start working together toward a
common cause, real enemies are going to destroy the
country while those morons are bickering over pork and
The key elements of that theme were:
* People who had more in common than they knew fighting
* Enemies disguised as friends bearing gifts
Plan your hiding place.
That book was not set in this time, in the US, or even in
this world. It was a high fantasy novel set in another
world, on an island nation about the size of England and
about the location of Australia with the climate of
Alaska through the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the
US. The cultures were Iron Age plus highly developed
magic, with levels of sophistication ranging from
18th-Century France to the nomadic
hunter-gatherer-herdsmen of the Mongol Horde.
So figure out YOUR disguise. Your most meaningful themes
are always going to be drawn from the here and now, from
the events in your life that trouble you and frighten you
and elate you---but those themes go into Westerns and SF
and fantasy and mysteries and romances and hard-boiled
detective tales and mainstream novels set in every
possible time and place.
Create your metaphors.
In that novel, the Democrats became one nation, the
Republicans the other. I made a point of locating the
good and the bad in both parties, and giving the two
nations those good and bad characteristics. I created the
real villains from current events, too, (though not from
obvious current events), and worked out a complex
metaphor for them, too, creating their culture from
elements of a handful of different cultures. My two
protagonists were from warring nations, magic was the
physics of the world, and the villain was disguised as a
good guy for the first half of the novel.
Never even hint at what you're talking about underneath
I didn't then write a story about how the politics of the
warring nations and the outside world clashed. I didn't
give a little nudge, nudge, wink, wink and call my
nations Demos and Republis. I spent time developing deep
cultures built not around my particular axe to grind, but
around the needs of the story. And then I built three
characters, one from each of the three cultures.
And the story I wrote was a love story set against the
backdrop of war and peace.
I wrote about the characters, I didn't confine them to my
metaphors, I didn't try to push any points or convince
anyone of anything. I let my folks become who they were,
good points and bad, and I told the story of their lives
in that world, that place, and that time---and because I
knew what underlay it, it meant a lot to me. And because
SOMETHING underlay it, it meant a lot to a whole lot of
With the possible exception of its sequel, it was the
best book I've ever written.
That story remains a favorite for my readers, too---even
though what they take from it is sometimes the exact
opposite of what I put into it. They have found their own
meaning in it, have felt the resonance of it being about
something bigger than the story on the surface, and have
taken it to heart.
And if you're a novelist, that is what you want them to
do. (If you're still hung up on requiring that they get
YOUR meaning from your book, you're in the wrong line of
In BRING YOUR NOVEL TO LIFE, Part IV, Playing Chicken
With Your Story, you'll learn how to take the personal
risks in writing that will keep your readers glued to
their seats turning pages.
About the Author
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