themes in books, an old fashioned politician with a top hat standing next to an old fashioned bicycle

Themes in Books are Like…

For many authors, developing and working with themes in their books is like getting fillings in their teeth: It may be necessary, but it’s a pain to even contemplate.

Numerous clients have asked me why they need themes for their books. “I’ve got a lot of great stories” or information, they say. “Why can’t I put it all in?”

You may indeed have a lot of great stories or ideas, plus facts and arguments, and feel they should all be included in your manuscript. But is that wise? Think about the silverware drawer in your kitchen. If you tossed every piece of cutlery you ever owned, every soup spoon, teaspoon, steak knife, fish fork, serving fork, dinner knife, fruit fork, carving fork, dessert spoon, and whatever else you’ve collected over the decades in the drawer, it would be a mess. You’d be constantly searching through disorganized piles of flatware to find what you needed. You might give up using the drawer altogether, and just leave a few knives, forks, and spoons on the counter, so you can find them.

That’s why we put organizers in silverware drawers. They help us sort things out, and decide what belongs in this drawer and what goes in a different drawer – or in the trashcan. It also helps us put a limit on the number of items put in any one drawer. In a sense, the organizer serves as the theme for the drawer.

So when you’re preparing to write your book, don’t dread the idea of developing a theme for your book. Embrace it! Think of themes in books as being like organizers in silverware drawers. Themes serve as central organizing principles for manuscripts, whether fiction or non-fiction. Your theme – and subthemes, if you have them – tell you what to include and what to set aside; where the writing should begin, where it is headed, and what awaits the readers at the end of the journey.

Here are some other ways to think about the theme for your book:

Themes in books are like well-crafted bicycle frames

Without a strong theme, your writing is like a pile of bicycle parts; a handlebar, a seat, some wheels, two pedals. The individual parts may be interesting, but they haven’t been assembled into anything worthwhile. A book with a good theme, on the other hand, is like a custom-made bicycle with everything in exactly the right place. The bike frame ensures that readers speed along their journeys, making the reading exciting and easy.

Themes in books are like clever campaign messages

Without a strong theme, your book is like a political campaign without a central message. You, the candidate, might be filled with ideas and plans, facts and figures, but voters can’t put all that together into a coherent picture. They can’t figure out who you are and what you stand for. A book with a good theme, however, is like a campaign with a unifying message that organizes your central ideas and excites the voters.

Themes in books are like sturdy tree trunks

Without a strong theme, your book is like scores of branches and piles of leaves scattered helter-skelter across a yard. Each leaf represents a story or fact, each branch an idea or argument, yet whatever larger story or message they’re designed to tell is totally scattered, lost in the pile. A book with a good theme, however, is like a towering tree where every branch and leaf is in place because they are attached to a sturdy trunk. The trunk holds everything in place, allowing the branches to spread and the leaves to cover everything in an umbrella of green, yellow, red, and brown.

Themes in books are like turbocharged car engines

Without a strong theme, your book is like an old car with spark plugs that constantly misfire, a rusty radiator, leaky hoses, and a nearly dead battery. Driving that car from here to there—that is, reading your book—is a long and uncomfortable process. A book with a good theme, however, is like a car with a turbocharged engine. Driving it is a pleasure and easy, as it flies through the journey without a hiccup or stall.

Themes, themes, themes!

If you’re struggling to develop the theme for your book, think about what will make an excellent bicycle frame for your story or idea; what will serve as a potent campaign message or tree trunk; and what will turbocharge your book’s engine.

In short, when thinking of themes for your book, consider what will unify your story or idea, make it obvious to you what belongs in and what should be set aside, help you plot your way through the adventure or program, and speed the readers through the journey.

To learn more…

See our articles touching upon book themes, including “Memoir Ideas Are Everywhere,” “Book Themes and Chocolate Cake Recipes.” and “How to Tell Your Life Story Via Its Meaning.”


Barry Fox explains how to begin a business memoir or autobiography

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