In my last blog post, I talked about the importance of understanding your reader so that you can take him or her on a journey from a not-so-good place to a new-and-improved place.
Today, we’re going bring it back to you, the author, and talk about your Theme. This is your thesis, your angle, your central argument—basically, it’s your opinion. Your book isn’t just a collection of facts or instructions (well, it can be, but it won’t be as interesting); at heart, your book is a strong opinion, bolstered by solid evidence.
Let’s say that our reader’s outer starting point is that she’s terrible at baking cakes. Her inner starting point is that she’s embarrassed by her lack of skill (I mean, how hard can it be?) and wants to improve this area of her life. After reading your book, she learns how to bake a cake (outer benefit) and her self-esteem totally takes off (inner benefit).
Your Theme is your opinion about why this transition is important. It’s the big why. Sure, a self-esteem boost is nice, but why?
Is it …
- So that she can create fond memories for her kids of baking with their mom?
- So that she can impress her friends and be known as the girl who always brings the amazing dessert to dinner parties?
- So she can revel in being a domestic goddess whose husband can’t get enough of her cooking?
What It’s Not
Note: your Theme is NOT the subject matter of your book.
The subject matter is learning to bake cakes. There are a million cake-baking books on the market.
Your Theme is WHY IT’S IMPORTANT to learn how to bake cakes. Your Theme is what sets your book apart from the other cake books out there.
And it comes down, as I said, to your opinion:
I believe that being able to master cake-making is the key to a happy marriage.
In my opinion, cake-making skills are one of the easiest ways to impress your social circle.
I think one of the most fun things you can do as a mom is bake with your kids.
Some people will agree with you and some won’t. If you choose the domestic goddess angle, someone may come along and say, “That’s a ridiculous reason to learn to how to bake.” Choose the impress-your-friends line, and someone else will come along and say, “Oh, but I have such fond memories of baking with my mother—surely that’s more important.”
That’s fine. Other readers will come along and say, “YES! That’s why I’ve always wanted to learn how to bake! Finally, someone who gets me!”
And that is the reaction—and the reader—you want. Your book will not—and should not—appeal to everyone, not even to everyone who wants to learn how to bake a cake. It should appeal to a very specific subset of wannabe-cake-bakers and it should be clear from the first page to the last who that reader is.
What It Means for Your Book
A strong theme will depend on you knowing your reader: her desires, needs, and dreams.
A strong book will depend on you supporting that theme consistently throughout your narrative. That means that everything in your book should be written with the theme in mind—the stories, the language, the recipes, the descriptions, and the feelings you invoke.
Sometimes that means leaving good material on the cutting room floor. If you’re writing for the mom who wants to bake with her kids, you may want to edit out the story about the time your boyfriend ate angel food cake off your bare stomach, for example (but hey, it might work for the Domestic Goddess).
The good thing about a clear theme, though, is that it’s like a compass, always pointing you in the right direction. As long as what you are writing aligns with your theme, you can be confident that you’re on the right track.
Fortunately for me, my daughter is baking cake RIGHT NOW (she’s very much of the impress-your-friends–and-family angle), so I’m going to go persuade her to let me have some.
And while I enjoy my cake, feel free to share your thoughts and questions on Theme.