Can you boil the theme of your book down to one word?

The other day as I was walking a few laps around the track, through the miracle of the Audible app on my smart phone, I listened to a lecture by Christopher Vogler on the craft of writing.

Vogler is the author of The Writer’s Journey, perhaps the most widely-read book about how to write.

The Writers Journey


The format of the discussion was lecture, then Q&A.  At one point, Vogler talked about the need for every work to have a theme, and he gave this advice.

“Boil the theme of your novel down to one word.”

What he had in mind were words such as love, hate, revenge, passion, justice, duty, honor, sacrifice.

As he expanded his remarks he told the writers in the audience at the Writers League of Texas that once they had a one word theme, then they should decide which component of that one word the book was about.  If the theme is love, is it love between a man and woman, a father and son, friends?

Once the writer has narrowed the focus of his work to such a theme, she should then examine each scene she has written to see if it furthers the theme.

Makes a whole lot of sense.

If the author is a pantser, a writer who doesn’t outline his work ahead of time but lets the book take him where it will, he may have to apply Vogler’s theme diagnostics after the fact.  When he reaches the end of the book, he may have to sit back and ask himself: “What the hell is this book about?”  Once he gives a one word answer to that question, the author may need to go back to the beginning and see if he was focused on his theme throughout the project.

If not, through Vogler’s advice she has a road map for revisions.

The road map is the answer to two simple questions.

1.  What one word best expresses the theme of my book?

2.  What branch of that one word captures the essence of what I hoped to address?

Sounds simple enough.

It’s not.

Just try boiling the theme of your book down to one word.

That’s quite a challenge.

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