Wednesday, July 4, 2012

What are you saying?

by Jenny Hilborne, mystery/thriller author 

“What is the main theme or message of the book?”

I heard this question quite a bit on a booth I shared with 5 other authors at the LA Festival of Books this past April. I’ll admit it had me a bit stumped and I had to scramble for an answer. Madness and Murder has a theme of second chances woven through it, although I wasn’t actually aware of this until a reader pointed it out in a review. 

When I start writing a new novel, I have a main plot in mind and a possible working title, and that’s it. I definitely don’t have any kind of message or theme on my mind. If I'm honest, I don’t intend to convey any kind of message in my novels. I write to entertain rather than to educate. One reason for this is that I can’t be sure my message, should I decide to send one, would be interpreted in the way I intended.

I’d like to pose a question to readers: how important is it for a novel, a work of fiction, to carry a message? Does it need to be moralistic? 

I read fiction (thrillers) because I like to be entertained and I enjoy trying to solve the mystery. I’ve never thought much about whether there was a message in the books I read, and it doesn’t spoil my enjoyment if there isn’t one. Having just read (and loved) To Kill A Mockingbird, I’m not so sure anymore. I believe books with a message are more memorable and stay with the reader for longer. These are the books that generate conversation, which creates interest and spreads the word among the reading community.  Without a message, does the book stand a chance of breaking out from the ever-growing crowd?

I’ve read books by authors who use their work to express themselves and their personal opinions, be it politics, religion, whatever. I tend to shy away from those. As a reader of fiction, I don’t want to know the author's opinion on a subject and have it slant the outcome of the novel, or have it shoved down my throat. I just want a good story. After a little thought on the subject, I'd say I'm of the opinion a message is fine, good even, as long as it's not too intense, but I don't care if there isn't one. How do you feel about it? Do you feel let down if there is no underlying message? 


  1. Thinking about themes and messages ahead of time makes my head hurt. It messes with the story.

    I also think that almost all good stories have a message or a theme in them somewhere. They just aren't always overt or in-your-face.

    Thoughtful post, Jenny. Thanks.

  2. To Kill a Mockingbird is a story about race and justice in the South, right? So, if it has a message, you could boil it down to the great Judeo-Christian/Buddhist/etc dictum: "don't be an asshole." I think that's generally the message of crime fiction, too, if it has one: Don't be an asshole, because eventually karma (and my detective) will catch up with you. So there's your answer, next time someone asks. Free of charge.

  3. Excellent, Jon. I might use that next time :-)

  4. It's funny. I never set out to create a theme in my books, but somehow one always seems to emerge in each. Usually, it has a strong connection with what's happening in my life at the time, and I don't notice until after I finish writing it. That makes me reason that on a subconscious level, I'm creating one. I think that's good because it tends to be very subtle and I'm not ramming down the readers' throats.

    I also think that if you look at any book, whether you're reading or writing one, you can find a theme. It can be as simple as the pursuit of justice in crime fiction, or something more complex than that.

  5. I agree with your final paragraph, Jenny. I read novels to be entertained, and I'll put it down if the author is using it as a medium for obvious preaching, soap-boxing or axe-grinding. In fact I wrote a blog post on that here on CFC a few weeks ago!

    And Jon, I love your summary of the message/moral/theme of thrillers! Good one!

  6. I have a similar experience as Drew: themes emerge when I'm writing the story and they often parallel my personal life.

    But I'd like to point out that a theme and a message are different. A theme often just highlights a circumstance or social phenomenon. A message is typically an opinion or call to action.

  7. LJ, your novels usually have a message, which always add depth and make me think about certain social issues - but in a good, eye-opening way. Your writing is, as you call it, "provocative fiction."

  8. Very thought-provoking post, Jen. I agree about the stories with a theme - they do tend to stick with me longer. But so does clever writing (please don't ask me to define that - it's one of those 'I know it when I see it' things), even without a theme or message. Your heroine in No Alibi still clings with me, because I didn't like her at all at first, and your story and writing MADE me like her by the end. As far as theme goes, for all its excess, I still love Les Miserables. It's a thriller - will Javert capture Valjean? And yet it's a story of forgiveness and redemption. I'm a sucker for both.

    I don't really think of it as a theme, but my mysteries have a "root" to them. The root of Freezer Burn was babies, having them and not having them, and the results of that choice. The root of Hit or Missus is friendship - what WOULD you do for your friends? And the one I'm working on seems to be revolving around family dynamics and how the sins of the fathers affect the children. I think the reason I see them as roots instead of theme or message, is that I'm not offering any opinions, or any "right" path. Each character chooses their way, and (I hope) the reader is free to decide whether they approve or not.

  9. Agree with LJ that a theme and a message are different. Gayle, I like the idea of "roots." Hit or Missus definitely has it roots in friendship and I identified with it. As a lot of our fiction is grounded in one truth or another, I guess a theme or root is inevitable in our writing. By not offering our opinion, as you mention, we leave the reader free to form their own and take out of our writing what they will.

  10. I think every story has a theme, whether the author put it in there intentionally or not, whether the author even recognized it. It's important to figure out your theme at some point in the process (even if it's only after the 12th draft) to ensure you're not saying something you don't want to say.

    Yes, that does happen! I've critiqued a number of stories that seemed to have peculiar themes, and then asked the author, "Did you really mean to say this?"

    "Uh... no."


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