Today we’re going to explore whether you need a novel theme for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

What is Theme?

Theme is often listed as a story element, but what is it?

The theme is the main or central idea of a novel. To say it another way, it is the key message or an idea that recurs throughout the work. Novels may have more than one theme.

Theme is often confused with topic or subject, even by people who really should know the difference. Topics are usually one or two words and represents a category of story, such as a love story, a story about families, or a story about dogs. Theme represents an idea that is communicated by a phrase or full sentence.

Examples (made up):


Do you need a theme prior to writing?

Most authors agree that you don’t need to clearly define a theme before you start writing. Themes will arise as you write. It’s part of the process. Sometimes authors don’t know the themes they are exploring until they’ve finished a draft or two. Plus, readers may find themes in novels the authors weren’t even aware they had included.

In the past I never worried about themes and hadn’t planned on developing one for NaNo preparation this month. Earlier in the week, however, while I was running a few scenes through my mind, it hit me:  I had a theme for my novel! Wow! It felt like I had discovered gold for a few minutes.

The revelation was completely unexpected and it changed my mind a bit. Now I can see why having a theme ahead of time could be helpful. I can create scenes with the theme in mind. In addition, I’m going to pick up a few of books on the general topic to see how they handled similar themes.

Tip:  Don’t worry about having a theme ahead of time, but be aware in case one starts to coalesce.


If you would like to try to actively develop a theme, make a list of five to ten of your favorite books. Write down any themes that you recognize in each one. See if there are any themes in common or — at the least– topics in common. If so, you might want to consider exploring similar ones for your novel.

If your favorite books have nothing in common, did any particular book have a theme/idea that resonated with you? Keep it in mind when you are adding conflict to your novel and see if it builds or recurs.

Have you found your novel’s theme? Do you have more than one?


Visit our 30 Day Novel Prep Page for all the links.