The Core: What Drives a Novel?

"Cover" of a narrated 2005 eBook of ...
“Time Enough at Last” had a great theme, but at its heart it was simply a good and gripping story. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m currently smack dab in the middle of my current WIP, and it usually takes this long to figure out exactly what the theme of the book might be.  I know.  I should have a theme when I begin, but as I have found out, the purpose behind every novel shifts and changes as it is written.

The current WIP has gone through several changes of purpose:

First, it was driven by a desire to write a story much like that of Pines by Blake Crouch.  I was so fascinated with the way that Crouch was able to unveil one plot point at a time, fooling me into thinking I was in a small town when really I was not, and in the end shocking me with a fantastic science fiction story about the human propensity to pollute and destroy their environment.

Second, I began to become obsessed with creating a puzzle for the reader to solve.  I wanted to go beyond what Crouch did and  design a conundrum that was full of red herrings that all seemed plausible and in the process of that began to worry.

Third, I worried about the book having some type of spiritual message, fretting over the fact that I have set myself up as a Christian writer.  The book is rather dark, as is, and is very frightening to read in places.  I started to think that the book was about wasted chances, bad choices, and how we all would love to time travel and change some things about ourselves.

Fourth, I rested in the fact that as a Christian writer those themes usually rise out of me without much conscious effort.  I write about what I know, and ultimately I decided that the book should first and foremost be a great story and that all the thematic stuff would float to the surface eventually, most likely in the revision.

So now I’m happily writing away at this thing.  I have an outline, I can really see my characters and most importantly hear them, the framework in which my characters live is realistic and has all the kinks worked out, and my main character is lovable just enough that you’d have trouble firing him if he worked for you and did something crass.

I suppose it is all working out.

So what is the core of any novel?  It is the novel’s ability to engage the reader.  Who cares about the theme, really.  That will be something that is of a multiple nature if it is truly good writing.  My students were once challenged to find multiple themes in a short story that was less than a page in length.  They found 21 separate themes.

Make sure you have an engaging story.  The rest will fall into place.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

4 thoughts on “The Core: What Drives a Novel?

  1. I had a similar problem being a Christian writer – at first I kept trying to conform to the “rules” I felt Conservative Christians expected in a book (no kissing before marriage, no serious violence, etc) but finally I let myself go and just wrote. Sure, I can’t use some of my Christian friends as beta readers any more, but it was incredibly freeing and I think the underlying themes came out more clearly once I realized I needed to write in a darker way. I’m not saying they ended up on a Terry Goodkind level, but I found there are some weird expectations of Christian writers that we need to let go of, or the writing ends up artificial.

    1. I totally agree. The reason many Christian writers cannot break out of the Christian book store is because they don’t write with a reality or a grittiness that modern readers crave. My last book included a rather nasty torture scene. It was necessary for the story and was also a very real moment for the characters. Keep at it!

  2. Couldn’t agree more. On a couple of my short stories I’ve been guilty of focussing too much on the theme at the expense of the story. Whereas when I let the story flow I find the theme seems to reveal itself – usually a sub conscious manifestation of what I’m feeling/thinking/going through at the time – oooh, deep!

  3. You may have that eureka moment upon second draft and find opportunities to add the necessary textures and details to support it. As a reader, I’d rather discover those things on my own than be beaten over the head with them anyway,

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