Chaos and confusion come when established rules and procedures are not followed. Even mixing and matching systems to favor one’s own position can cause a great deal of consternation. In writing a book, the first rule is to know and understand why you want to write in the first place.
In other words, you need to develop a theme that will answer the question of why you want to write. I usually get a blank stare when I ask a budding author, “What is your book’s theme?” Eventually the answer I get may be the title of a manuscript.
When I explain that a title isn’t a theme, I then may hear, “It’s the story of my life.” That is unquestionably the number-one answer I get. There is a big difference between the title of your book and your theme.
While your title may be the sizzle, the theme is the flavor and is formally defined as a “recurring, unifying subject or idea.” This is the aim or the main message of your book. Generally speaking, in writing there are two themes: the author’s theme and the book’s theme.
The author’s theme is the usual subject matter the writer handles, or the one the writer is most comfortable with. For example, a writer may find his forte in the subject matter of healing or forgiveness. Another may write most of the time in the area of spirituality or motivation.
Don’t confuse the author’s theme with genre, which is the category of writing. In addition to establishing if you are writing fiction or non-fiction, there are several categories your book may fall into. Some of the most popular ones today are biography, science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, thriller/espionage, horror, inspirational, historical, and courtroom drama.
Your book’s theme is what the reader should learn most after reading your story. There are two answers that you as a writer shouldn’t give when questioned about your theme: 1) This book is about me and the things that have happened to me; and 2) A rambling, almost incoherent dissertation that leaves one asking, “Huh?” Every author should ask and answer the following questions: “Why am I writing? What am I trying to articulate? What kind of outcome will the story have on the reader and what is the outcome I’m aiming for?”
In other words, what is the rationale behind your book? For example in his bestseller, The Purpose-Driven® Life(Zondervan), author Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, takes readers on a “personal 40-day spiritual journey” to find the answer to the question, “What on earth am I here for?” To me, the most important element of your book is its theme.
Writing professors will probably disagree with me, and that is their right. In fact, some say the title is the most important. I understand, because all of this is subjective and mostly based upon personal preference. After all, there are many elements to creating a successful manuscript. But after years of trying to get would-be writers to complete their novels, short stories or even church talks, I’ve discovered that nothing has helped to move them “off the pot” quicker than having a well-developed theme.