Creative Writing Workshop: The Riverbed Of Theme

Posted at 06:28am on 20th July 2019

We began this Creative Writing Workshop by asking Are You On The Right Track? We then moved on to think about the necessity of Digging Deep for Plots. I trust you found the list of prompts helpful - i.e. considering a modern take on a Bible story or a nursery rhyme as inspiration for a novel, and showing how plot is just as relevant for memoir? And I hope you have plenty of ideas milling around in your mind. Keep a note of them because we'll be putting it all together in the next few weeks. And if you've come up with something I haven't thought of, let me know by posting a comment at the end of this post, so that we can all benefit.


This time we're going to study Theme. Many aspiring writers confuse Plot with Theme, but they are entirely different. So let's start by defining the two terms.

  • Theme is not Plot. It does not describe the events in the lives of characters. Plot is the term used for portraying action and events. Thus we speak of plotting a novel i.e. setting out the behaviour and circumstances of the characters in a story-telling manner.
  • Theme cannot be described as: crime writing, romantic fiction, historical sagas, or literary novels. These are all genres. Genre describes the category of a book.
  • Theme is best described as the subject of a novel or biography. Subject in this sense does not mean a character in the story. It is the purpose or focus of the book.
  • Theme is the one word, or sentence, that characterises the reason for the book having been written.
  • Theme might thus be described as the motive for your book. It is the riverbed that runs beneath the entire story. The focal point you wish to convey to your readers. A lesson learned.
  • Theme, for example, may be expressed as: forgiveness; betrayal; unrequited love; repentance; turning a self-centred life into a life which serves others, and so on.


So, while an autobiography simply tells a life story, a memoir, testimony, or novel needs to drive home the purpose of your story. In order to do so, you need to identify what it is that you're trying to convey to your reader in terms of Theme, and it's best that you identify this right at the start (though not imperative), because this is what will guide and shape your writing. If you're someone for whom a Theme will only emerge after you've started writing, you may have to do some judicious editing and pruning at a later stage. All I would say is don't leave it too late, or you'll be faced with a monumental task!

So what do we mean by shaping and guiding? Think of Theme in terms of a river running through a valley. The hillsides and banks on either side determine the form and pathway that the river will take. However, a flood can cause havoc, resulting in the river breaking its banks, inundating the local area, and losing its form.

Likewise, the Theme you wish to convey to your reader needs to be contained, and should run like a thread through the narrative of your story. Or think of it as a railway line. In this respect, Theme will keep you on track. Furthermore, it will prevent your drifting off into a siding. In other words, Theme will put a constraint on all the extraneous matter which might - possibly - belong in another book, but certainly has no place in the one you're writing. Let me give you an example.


Back in the 1990s, I was commissioned by Hodder & Stoughton to write the story of a woman who suffered a life-changing disability. The result was a book called Healed Within (you can read more about it, and the journey I undertook in writing it, on my books' page).

Susan was a lovely lady; everyone fell under her spell. But she was also quite strong-willed. By her own admission, she had been once been a 'spoiled little rich girl', living it up in an exotic location, where servants and hand-made shoes were the norm for people like her. Tragedy struck in the form of a brain tumour which left her confined to a wheelchair for life.

My contract with Hodder was to produce a book which portrayed not only her suffering but, crucially, the manner in which she overcame her adversity. It was one of those 'hope for the hurting' topics. The Theme of the book could be summed up by its title: Healed Within. Susan would never know physical healing in this life, but she had come to a place where healing of her mind, her emotions and spirit was self-evident. She was 'healed within' through and through. Thus the Theme (and title) were entirely appropriate.


But Susan wanted more. She wanted me to include all sorts of events in her later life. The trouble was, that although exciting in themselves, they had nothing to do with her journey through loss of mobility, marriage, and meaning in life to the point where she reached a place of healing, peace, acceptance - and even joy. Sometimes, during my interviews with her, she would become quite cross with me. But having identified the Theme, I was able to stick to my guns. The temptation to go down all sorts of avenues which had nothing to do with being healed within was averted.


Likewise, my latest book, Picked for a Purpose, with the subtitle, Bearing fruit through times of hardship, sets out the manner in which a sense of purpose and value triumphed over the adversities of my own life. Labelled a 'naughty girl' from birth, because of the undiagnosed painful disease with which I was born, I could have gone completely off the rails. Similarly, my abusive marriage and the death of a daughter who, five years earlier, had overcome a decade of drug addiction, could have tipped me over the edge. The mandate of comforting others with the comfort I received became my raison d'etre, with writing my means of conveying it. Thus the Theme of my book is to show young people with mental health issues, their parents, teachers and social workers, how - with a sense of purpose in their lives - the negatives that threaten to tip them over the edge can be overcome.

Do you see how important it is to know the Theme for your book from the start? Without it, your story - whether a novel, memoir or testimony - may become derailed, or rewound, by actions, occurrences and features which have no place in your narrative.

If you feel you've benefited from this free tutorial, why not do one or more of the following:

  1. Buy a copy of Picked for a Purpose. (If purchased from this site, 100% of the book price will be given to The Prince's Trust, a charity to empower young people)
  2. Tell a friend and ask them to support these worthwhile causes by purchasing a copy of the book.

NEXT TIME: We'll be looking at Crafting Your Characters.

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller, Mel is also an experienced Speaker and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 1,500 in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows and running Writers' Workshops.

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