Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Theme in Query Letters

Okay, before we get into the tricky concept of theme in query letters, we have to start off with a definition of theme itself.

Theme is the central idea which controls a literary work. It is the underlying meaning, the aphorism around which the plot and characters coalesce.

Theme can be broad and abstract. Most would say, for example, that the theme of Othello is jealousy. Othello is jealous of Desdemona, Iago is jealous of them both, and so on. This jealousy drives them to wild actions and tragic ends. Each character embodies a slightly different aspect of jealousy, and the plot explores the consequences of jealous behavior.

So, should Shakespeare include in his query, "My theme is jealousy"?

No. Nor should you state your theme so baldly. I really don't need to see the following sentences in any query letter:
  • Love conquers all.
  • Love heals all wounds.
  • Love is blind.
  • True love lasts forever.
Because, let's face it, these are cliches. They might be great themes for novels, but the statements themselves are about as interesting as a coma.

What is interesting -- or what, at least, has the potential to be interesting -- is the way you explore the theme in your query. Just as the theme can be the unifying principle for your novel, so can it be the organizing principle for your query. (Or synopsis. Or pitch. Think about it after you've read this whole post.) So your goal is not to present the generic version of your theme in a coma-inducing statement, but to illustrate it using specific detail from your novel.

Let's say your theme is love heals all wounds. Your first job is to do a little brainstorming. Get out a sheet of paper. Write the key words from your theme in the center of the page, and draw bubbles around each word. Like so:

And now you begin to probe each part of that statement as it relates to your novel. Look not just for plot and character details which support your theme, but also for details which contradict it.

We'll make up an example to see how this goes. Your story is about Marissa and Jake, who hate each other on page one but fall in love in the end. Along the way, their nemesis Dr. Badboy kidnaps Marissa's elderly but frail grandmother. He forgets to also steal Grandma's medicine cabinet, meaning her health will be in ever greater peril as the plot develops. Jake is the superhero/FBI guy/rogue cop who investigates the case, overcomes Marissa's trust issues from a past cheating bastard boyfriend, and gets shot in Dr. Badboy's lair. Grandma's poodle is the only eyewitness to the crime and plays a key role in the investigation.

We've all seen plots something like this before, right? Marissa has a wounded heart, and she must learn to love again over the course of the plot, hence the theme, love heals all wounds.

But there's more to it than that. Your plot will contain other details supporting the theme -- concrete, specific details -- and we're going to jot them down on our paper. The easiest way to do this is to think of each keyword in the theme one at a time. Ask the journalist's questions of each keyword: who, what, where, why, when, how? For example:

  • Love: Who feels love? Is it strong or weak? Does anyone feel hatred? On the first/last page, who feels love or hate?
  • Heals: Heals how? Automatically, as aspirin heals a headache? Or behaviorally, as changes in activity can create change in other areas of life? There's other medication in the plot. Hmm. And the villain is named Doctor -- not Mister or His Grace the Duke of Evil.
  • All: Oh, really? Are there any exceptions to ALL? Why ALL and not SOME or MOST?
  • Wounds: Here's a concrete noun. Everything else has been abstract so far. So can we list actual physical wounds or conditions, as well as psychic trauma? Which are healed and which are unhealed?
As you ask these questions, jot down the answers in bubbles around the central theme, and draw lines to connect them to the relevant keywords. Like so:

As you test the way your novel supports your theme, you'll discover some interesting angles you might not have thought about before. For example, Dr. Badboy, the villain, dies of his wounds. Bot nobody loved him, right? So that supports your theme, and it can be expressed thematically in your plot summary:

No one grieves when the hateful Dr. Badboy dies of his chest wounds, and everyone rejoices when Grandma's insulin shot saves her life.

Okay, not a brilliant sentence, but you get the idea. We have very specific statements containing plot details which support your theme. How about,

As Grandma recovers in the ER, Jake and Marissa join hands, proclaim their mutual love, and find an empty hospital bed in the maternity ward to seal the deal.

(tee hee) Maybe not in those words, but do you see the theme lurking in that sentence, too? Compare these two sentences to,

In the end, Grandma is rescued and Dr. Badboy dies.

Here we lose the sense of wounds, healing, and love which floats just under the surface of the first two sentences. Also, you might want to rethink whether to include this:

Pinky Poodlepiffle, Grandma's beloved dog, is caught in the crossfire and dies in Dr. Badboy's lair.

Because it doesn't support your theme.

You can be bold about this. You can include the words love, heals, all, and wounds -- just not together in a single sentence with nothing else. You can also be more subtle, and use synonyms for these keywords. (You can also brainstorm these synonyms on your bubble map.)

Now that you've examined your theme within the context of this process, can you revise it to get more story specific? Maybe it's not love heals all wounds, but love overcomes what hate creates. If you can generate a more specific and less cliched version of your theme, you might be able to get away with stating it directly in your query. Otherwise, stick to the ideas outlined above and focus on creating a plot summary which supports the theme without stating it in cliched terms.



Erin Cabatingan said...

So, umm, I feel kind of silly asking these questions here, but what do you do when you are having a hard time deciding what the theme of your novel is?

Can there be more than one theme in a book? With your example of Othello, all the characters have the same theme of jealousy, but can different characters have different themes, different things that they learn? Can a book explore more than one main idea and still make sense and be coherent?

Could you give examples of books where the theme is harder to pick out? Would the theme of Twilight be "obsessive love?" What about Harry Potter? The Lightening Thief?

How specific should your theme be? What is the theme of Jane Eyre? Or Pride and Prejudice or Emma?

Sorry, but for some reason, I'm kind of struggling with theme. Do I need to have a very specific theme to write about, that guides my work, or can it be more general--I'm going to talk about forgiveness. And different aspects of forgiveness. And can it have another side dish of some other theme? Like, I'm going to focus on forgiveness, but I also want to explore beauty?

Don't know if these questions make any sense. Thank you for your time! Your posts are always so helpful and informative.

Miss Sharp said...

So good! This post really encompasses much more than just (just!) the query.

But it felt to me like you were only getting revved up - there's a part II, right? Right???

Catherine said...

"love overcomes what hate creates"

Ooh, that's good...that's very good.

Great post - very helpful and thought-provoking. And timely as I spent most of today working on character motivation for (just started) WIP. As I read your comments, possible themes jumped out at me. I'm eager to now take things to the next level and find a way to put a spin on the themes.

I decided to write queries for the novels I want to write. I figured that was one way to see which ideas/stories jumped out at me first. Which ones seem more fully realized or have more potential...

Your suggestions should also help as I try to write a solid hook for each idea.



Lisa_Gibson said...

Great information about how to break it down into a step-by-step process. I liked the idea of writing things out in bubbles to narrow down how it applies to your ms. Great post!

Edittorrent said...

@Erin - Yes, you can have more than one theme. Theme doesn't even have to be tied to character directly. For example, in "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood, one of the themes is the way language is used in both politics and religion to desensitize and dehumanize us.

I haven't read Twilight (tried, failed to get past the first chapter), but I think Harry Potter's themes have something to do with legacy, family, "found" family, birthright, things of that nature. Anyone want to take a crack at formulating a theme there? These things do get easier with practice.


Edittorrent said...

@Miss Sharp - Yes, we'll talk about motif in queries, too. The two concepts sort of go hand in hand because they're both principles around which you can organize a plot summary.


Thomas Sharkey said...

Dear Theresa
Thank you for your advice on query letters.
I have a problem.
I have written an erotic sci-fi fantasy novel, “Tales of Bexhill”, word count 83,000. It is in three (related) parts, each with its own MC and foreword. How do I present it/them ?
The word counts are: 21,900, 23,130 and 37,300 respectively.
What do you think as I wish to present it to Red Sage Publishing?

Yours sincerely,

W. S. Taylor.

Sylvia said...

I have problems thinking along the line of themes but cliches are easy. I found one that fit my novel immediately and started the brainstorm process. As a part of that, I stumbled upon an important recurring aspect which I think is actually a clear theme in the work.

So now I'm off to rewrite my query letter again !

Edittorrent said...

@Sylvia - Sweet! Sometimes a little idea-mapping can open up these new views of existing works because it lets us look at things from a different angle. Glad it worked for you.

@Thomas Sharkey - Are these three connected novellas? If so, query them accordingly. If it's one novel in three acts, you make that clear from the query, too.


Riley Murphy said...

I don’t believe it! Just by doing this simple exercise I realized something VERY important. And, although the necessary pieces were there in the story (the exercise tied my main theme directly back to the villain) - which gave me a new angle to fine tune his motivations in the end. Awesome!

Thanks, Theresa!

And, um, @ Thomas.

Have you, per chance, read T’s mantasy post? ;) We forced Wes to read it before he submitted. *insert me sighing here* Ah, those were the days. (Because we teased him mercilessly about it, too - hehehe)

In any case, best of luck with your stories - But after reading your comment on RU yesterday about: blowing in the dead guy’s lungs after you removed his dentures Classic, btw - I’m sure you're beyond the pitfalls of a mantasy.

Murphy :D

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Ah! Brilliant post.
I do have a central theme that runs through both the main plot and the sub plots. Back to the old query-writing board.

Stacey Joy Netzel said...

Teresa, this is great! I haven't tried it just yet, (I will!) but was wondering if I could have permission to use this blog post, with the examples, for a local WisRWA chapter meeting program? (With proper credit and blog links posted.)

I'm at

Eeleen Lee said...

never thought of using a diagram to help draft a query letter, thanks