Dig Deeper With Your Novel's
By Holly Lisle
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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