A novel is complex, if only because it’s so long. It can so easily wander off course, fall into episodic events and feel scattered.
To maintain unity in a story, create or discover the novel’s dramatic purpose, whether it’s the human value at stake or the theme related to a human value. To write at our best, the challenge is to know in the simplest terms, what larger issue the story is about.
This dramatic purpose can shape our decisions about what events to portray and which to leave out. Making it more likely that readers will experience a cohesive, fulfilling story.
Getting to Meaning
Examples of human values explored in novels: The Kite Runner: atonement; The Titanic (film): to be loved for oneself; The End of the World Running Club: spiritual renewal; A Discovery of Witches: self-knowledge. These are universal human issues. In these best-selling stories, fictional events and characters are chosen to dramatize these human issues.
Not only does the inherent drama in these stories feel meaningful, but the stories deeply reach the emotions of the reader. Because when we put a strong human value at stake, we touch universal pressure points that bring forth empathy.
It’s wonderful if the dramatic purpose comes to you in the novel’s planning stage. But in my novels sometimes I discover the human value at stake only after I’ve written my way into the novel. I uncover a richer vein than I started with.
Handling a theme
This writing concept–of a specific human value as a unifier–is related to theme, but is not necessarily a theme. A theme in story is “what is true” as proven by the story. Not what is true all the time (otherwise we might have a “lesson”) but what is true within the frame of the story. For example, The Godfather: “Family loyalty leads to a life of crime.” (from James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Novel.)
We don’t want to hit the reader over the head with our dramatic purpose. The author trusts it as a guide without putting a mouthful of message on the page. I like what screenwriter Brian McDonald says about this. “The reader won’t know what the theme is but the writer knows.”
Such as the theme in the James Bond film Skyfall: “Sometimes the old ways are best.” (Watch for that line toward the end of the film. It slips in in a way that most people don’t consciously recognize as the executed theme.)
Try stating “what you’re talking about” in one sentence. Here are some examples from film, as cited by McDonald. (Theme is a necessity in film, which is a tighter medium than a novel.) ET: “Eliott needs to learn empathy.” Tootsie: “Wearing a dress has made you a better man.” Wizard of Oz: “You already have what you need.” For more on theme: Brian McDonald, The Golden Theme.
Human value as theme
Not all stories have a provable theme. Many powerful stories tap into a human value, simply defined and beautifully fulfilled. In a sense we can call this a theme but I separate the two for clarity.
How to decide? Let your story guide you to your best writerly wisdom. If you don’t find some order of theme, ask what unifying concept is suggested by your story, one that you may not be optimizing. You may want to keep probing as you write or before you write. Once discovered (or crafted) bring that concept on stage and into your major character’s issues and desires.
Sometimes we find we’ve written to a theme that we didn’t consciously know. Brilliant! For myself, I tend not to rely on brilliance. But, dear Muse, I would be in your debt should you drop one on me!
For more on dramatic purpose: Bill Johnson, A Story is a Promise; Larry Brooks, Story Physics.