Theme and imagery in novel writing

I am writing this post in response to an excellent question from my Uncle Raul.  He wondered…

“When an author writes a novel, does he/she have a conscious focus on creating ‘meaning’ and ‘imagery’ as he/she writes, or does the story unfold from a fertile mind, leaving the reader the task of finding these elements?”

My experience as a writer, and as an active reader, has been that it’s a little bit of both.

A good author uses thematic material, and a good author also leaves the reader some room for imaginative interpretation of that thematic material–room for expansion.  Your job as a writer, I think, is to make sure that you write a book that behaves itself in a balanced sort of way, given these roles and expectations.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let’s break it down into two parts: the creation of the theme and images; the reception/interpretation of the same.


Creating a theme and images:

Regardless of what kind of author you are, your book will use theme and imagery.  Yes, every high school literature teacher you ever had was right.

However, there are at least two totally different ways to go about creating images and themes.

The first method is that used  by many story/plot-driven writers, like Steven King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, and the like.  You just sit down and start writing–no staring at walls and thinking big thoughts, no beard-stroking or tea-stirring, just jump right in.

Don’t be fooled, though…this is not the method of unsophisticated writers who only care about guns and/or horror.  Just because you start with the narrative over the grandiose does not mean that you can’t, or that you shouldn’t think at the level of images and themes.  All of those guys do, and here is how.

First, a good plot-driven writer trusts him/herself enough as an author to write organically from one blank page forward, allowing themes to develop on their own, without prompting.

Second, these sorts of writers then have the ability to go back over their draft and look for connections and themes that have materialized, networking those moments into something special.

And YES they will have a theme.  Writers, at least the good ones, are intelligent people with observational powers, developed world-views, and opinions.  And the things you’ve observed and developed and opined are going to come out in your writing whether you ask them to, or not.

Also, no one who decides to write a book makes that decision within a vacuum–people who write have something to say, and they are incited to speak by their audience and by the world around them.

Alright, so, the positive side to this method is that it allows story-driven authors to just hella go for it, sort of like kicking-ass and taking down names, after the fact. It gives you the opportunity to just pour out a narrative, and worry about the “bells and whistles” of imagery after you’ve done that.   You end up with a first draft pretty quickly, this way.

The negative side to the method is that going back and creating the images you need to accentuate your self-discovered theme often takes a good bit of rewriting.  It can feel like reinventing the wheel, and sometimes your ass-kicking writes you into a corner.  You might realize that your newly thematic character wouldn’t react a certain way after all, or that they need to be in a different place in a different time.  And sometimes you realize you didn’t check your opinions at all, and you wrote something unintentionally preachy or polemical.  I mean, if it was your intention to write a polemical novel all along, gross, but whatever.  But if not, you have to work on balancing things out.

The second method for theme creation is that used by thematic/descriptive/character driven authors, such as James Joyce, Marilynne Robinson, Nuala O’Faolain (and me).  And this method, of course, requires that you come up with your themes and develop them prior to writing.

These sorts of writers also require self-confidence and analytical skill, but they apply these qualities in a different order than plot-driven authors

First, a good thematic writer trusts him/herself to be capable of some serious soul-searching and intricate planning.  You have to decide which of your opinions are strong enough to carry a story, who among your characters will carry these opinions.

Second, thematic writers then have the ability to sculpt their writing as they go, delivering the proper images and connections at the appropriate times.

The positive side to this method is that it allows thematic/character driven authors the chance to systematically consider themes and the character-actions those themes might inspire before crafting the plot-line. It lends a sense of security, I think, and it saves some serious time in editing.

The negative side to this method is that it gives you a thousand problems to solve and a million questions to ponder, and then you end up doing the wall-staring, tea-stirring thing without ever writing the friggin’ story.  You have to make sure that you are equally as committed to producing a plot as you are to producing a theme, and that can be really difficult for the ponderous types.  Theme can quickly become a trap.

Regardless of which method you choose, or whichever method feels most natural, there are a couple of things I think all authors must work toward.

First, you should try to keep your ego out of your writing.  Most readers who pick up a novel want to read a damn novel, not a one-sided tract on a controversial issue.

If you must present a very strong opinion or you’ll just curl up and die, then make sure that you balance it with the counter-opinion.  Sometimes authors accomplish this by allowing oppositional characters to present the issue at hand.  Both characters gain the reader’s trust, and then they allow you to choose a side.  Authors also strike this balance simply by maintaining a sense of humility.  They check their attitude at the door and allow for the possibility that they might not know the answer to life the universe and everything–they’re happy to consider the possibility that they might be wrong about things.

Second, for the love of god, don’t go overboard on imagery.  There is nothing worse that reading a book full of blatant symbolism and chewy, overly-obvious vocabulary.  It can totally ruin a book that is otherwise awesome.

For instance, I nearly quit reading Cloud Atlas when I arrived at the post-apocalyptic world that was OMG destroyed by consumerism and OMG a return to the commentary on slavery and “primitive” society begun in the first section of the book.  In fact, the only thing that kept me reading was my desire to return to the character of Robert Frobisher, who, by no accident, belonged to the section of the book that spent the least amount of writing blatantly about slavery, consumerism, and the evil in men’s souls.  Frobisher absolutely represented facets of those themes, but he wasn’t some giant walking symbol–he was an alternately petulant and clarifying, amorphous and sharp-edged.  And it was up to you to decide how you felt about him.  The answer wasn’t handed to you.

Finally, be sure if you want to write a theme-driven book, something reflective and layered, that you have crafted the perfect situation or question–something strong enough to support a multiple lens examination over the span of two to three hundred pages.  And make sure that you have characters who are brilliant enough, in the visceral sense, to carry your readers off to a world where plot doesn’t matter.

And if you want to write a plot-driven book, make sure you give readers something to think about.  I don’t read a lot of suspense, or thrillers, or horror novels, but my Dad does.  And he told me that those authors absolutely remember to set the scene, build a lexicon of images, and then leave you with a question about the way the world works, and why their respective plots were able to function within that world.

Oh, and unless you are the greatest writer in the world, and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you can pull it off, do NOT write a dream sequence.

If you do…I will find you

If you keep the above caveats in mind, then you sort of solve the next part of the puzzle.

Letting your reader receive and interpret your images/theme:

I think the best way to give readers the opportunity to make the most of your book is to leave “imagination spaces.”

I sort of imagine these spaces to be something like the natural windowpanes of light that shine between the leaves on trees.  Trees are beautiful exactly because you can see the sky through the leaves.  Also, because the leaves have movement, and because seasons and shifting daylight/starlight catch trees in different moods.

Allow your book to be the same.

Know that depending on the reader, the interpretation will differ–you can’t change that, so writing a book that beats the reader over the head with your intended message is really a waste of time.  Besides, the best way to change someone’s opinion is to present your argument in a sort of ubiquitous, careful, quietly self-evident manner.

Know that open-ended themes can be very tantalizing, and that presenting both sides of your issues and themes help people to create the most accurate picture of the world you handed over to them.  You want them to see your characters moving and changing, not standing in one spot and shouting.

Know that your book is going to have a trunk and branches, but filling it up with thousands of heavy leaves/images won’t leave any space for the sky–you want people to walk away with something to think about, gaps to fill in.  You do not want your readers to throw down the book in frustration, because you didn’t give them the chance for co-constitutive creation.

Also, assume some intelligence on the part of your reader.  Don’t lead people around by the hand, talk down to them, or point out your theme in an obvious nature.  I think the best authors hold their readers to a certain standard and derive real pleasure from individual interpretations and imaginations.  That doesn’t mean that you should be totally obtuse and out there and leave 100% of the sense-making to the reader, but you should definitely welcome them in to the process of analysis.


I guess that sort of turned into a tutorial in the process of question answering…but I hope that it is both helpful and explanatory.  It is, above all, my opinion.  So  if you read my website for tips on writing, add this reflection it to your advice files, and make sure to surround it with the opinions of other authors, too.

Always, strike that balance.

Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

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