A good book, once finished, often leaves you with that feeling of something more. I like to think of it as the book’s essence. It kind of hangs around like a ghost, occasionally prodding you with reminders of the realization you had while reading it, or bringing to mind that character who never left you. Of course, there are plenty of facets in your novel that help to create this ‘ghost,’ but two key factors are the theme and golden thread.
These terms are often used interchangeably, but in my mind, they are slightly different, although inextricably linked.
The theme is the big idea or moral message underlying the story. For example, in The Hunger Games, the theme is sacrifice, or sacrificing yourself for others.
The golden thread refers to all the elements throughout your novel that piece together near the climax to reveal your book’s theme or inner truth. Think of it as a hook on a bookish fishing line that pulls your reader through your novel. As it does, it attaches more and more pieces of bait until right near the end, it catches a whale of a fish for the win.
In The Hunger Games, the theme is sacrifice. Collins lays pieces of sacrifice bait throughout the story, from the early chapters where Katniss volunteers herself for the Hunger Games in place of her sister, right through to the final chapter where she and Peeta make a pact to sacrifice themselves for the greater good and take down the games.
So how do you lay this golden trail that will lead readers to your story’s theme?
Tip 1: Pin down your book’s theme in a single sentence
Why? Because it will help you unearth what pieces of bait to lay through your book. Ask yourself: In a single sentence, what is my book’s theme?
The Hunger Games’ theme can be summed up this way: Sacrificing yourself for the greater good is necessary. Or, sacrificing yourself for others will lead to greater good.
(More information on determining your story’s theme can be found here.)
Tip 2: Position your main characters on opposing sides of your theme
Your hero and your villain should sit firmly opposite each other, particularly when it comes to the theme. For example, Katniss, the hero, sacrifices herself for everyone else. Whereas, President Snow sacrifices everyone else for his benefit. This provides lots of opportunity for conflict and tension.
But the hero doesn’t have to be perfect from the start; more often than not, the hero will start out flawed, on the wrong side of the thematic line. Through your story and your hero’s developing character arc, they will face a number of challenges that will force them to confront their actions and the choices they’ve made (on the wrong side of the theme). Eventually they’ll reach a thematic conclusion near the climax of the story when they’ll see the error of their ways and make the right choice that leads to saving the day.
Tip 3: Show the conflict via your theme in three ways
- Pit the character values based on the theme against each other (i.e. hero and villain)
- Make your main characters have different embodiments of the theme (i.e. differing levels of willingness to sacrifice or different views on sacrifice)
- Give your hero a decision based on the theme
Tip 4: Weave your theme into each major plot point
Plot and theme connect seamlessly. Most plots have key elements like plot points (where something significant happens), pinch points (with the villain ramping up pressure), and turning points (usually a significant event in favor of the hero). At each of these points, you need to bury the theme into your story, whether it be through character action, decision, dialogue. or otherwise.
For example, in The Hunger Games, the story opens with the principle of sacrifice and Katniss’s decision to volunteer for the games on her sister’s behalf. Throughout the story, Collins continues the theme of sacrifice, albeit in different ways:
- During the Hunger Games Katniss refuses to sacrifice Rue (another very young tribute) – risking death herself.
- Katniss also puts herself in danger to go and find much needed medicine for Peeta when he’s injured.
- She also weaves in the flip side of the theme: not only are these children murdered (sacrificed) live on TV in the games, we later discover that Snow has turned the old tributes into mutated wolves, sacrificing them again.
Tip 5: The Ultimate Decision
In and around the final battle, your hero should face the ultimate thematic decision. In the case of Katniss, she and Peeta are on the brink of winning the Hunger Games, but President Snow decrees that only one contender may live, meaning one of them must kill the other.
This prompts Katniss to have a thematic revelation: they will never beat the Hunger Games the way they want to (with both of them living). Therefore, it is better to sacrifice themselves so their deaths prevent Snow from getting his single winner.
It’s the old adage of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. But the sacrificial suicide pact saves them both because Snow would rather have two winners than none. The reason this is such a satisfying ending is because Collins uses sacrifice bait throughout the story to lead you to this conclusion.
If you bury the theme within your story’s plot points, scenes, and characters’ actions, you hook the reader with tiny pieces of theme bait. It leads them to one glorious thematic conclusion in your story’s climax.
More to the point, sowing these breadcrumbs makes the reader feel like they are having the thematic revelation personally; it provides an ‘aha’ moment, rather than having the theme told or explained to them. And that right there is how you leave them with the book’s essence, the magic, the ghost of a revelation they’ve had, and a story that will haunt them forever.
Sacha Black is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy, and her first series, Keepers, is due out in November 2017.