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Finding Your Theme

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #6.

In Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), I recommended four ways of finding your theme. What follows here is a hybrid of these strategies that I designed for a workshop setting originally but that can be applied to your work as it stands right now.

Although I definitely recommend doing theme work while preparing to write your method draft, it can be done at any time, and more than once. Each iteration gets you closer to the heart of something that is always changing before it gets fixed in the form of a finished book.

Step 1. Write a four-sentence description of what your book is about. You might use the top four of your series sentences in a top-down order of importance, or you might just use your presence and your instinct.

When we did this exercise in class, my student Kimberly reflected on her work-in-progress and wrote the following:

This is not a theme so much as it is an elevator pitch—you know, that brief speech you are supposed to have prepared in case you ever run into a literary agent and have exactly one minute to pitch your book.

That is for the external world. A theme, on the other hand, is for you, to help you bring your book to the next level by rearranging the key components around the one thing that holds your work together.

As such, you can probably take out the who, the where, and the when from your theme-in–progress…after all, you already know them. See if you can focus instead on the what, the how, and the why, when you complete the next step.

Step 2. Reduce your four-sentence description to a two-sentence description of what your book is about.

This is a bit like reducing a sauce over medium-high heat. You don’t want to damage any of the ingredients, but you have to end up with less.

When Kimberly combined and eliminated her theme material, she came up with the following two sentences:


This is close, but there is still too much going on here. While the last three actions—“finding hope,” “accepting the past,” and “choosing a future”—are all obviously related, each could be the theme of a book.

Step 3. Reduce your two-sentence description to a one-sentence description of what your book is about. Kimberly chose hers by circling it in her notebook:

“Choosing a future” is rich enough that it implies other necessary actions; it is internally wound in a way that provokes both curiosity and identification in the reader. “I want to read about that,” someone might say. “That affects me today.”

“Choosing a future” is short as far as themes go; you know from 3D that a theme can be as long as twenty-eight words or longer. The shortest a theme can be, however, is two words: a subject and a verb. If you just have a subject, like “Madness” or “Adultery,” you might proliferate your manuscript with associations, but you will get distracted and confused without a direction to travel in.

One of my students once told me the theme of her novel was “Conformity.” Her story looked at three generations of Germans: the first succumbed to the Nazi regime; the next violently rejected anyone who was a part of their nation’s darkest era; and the third tried to navigate a path between generations at such odds with each other.

It wasn’t until my student announced, “Conformity corrodes,” that the subject could be limited, or at least bounded, and the verb could operate through all of the major actions of her book. Having a subject and a verb is akin to having a topic and an angle at the same time. Of course, a theme can be much longer than two words, as evidenced by the variety presented in 3D and the next PDF (PDF #7 – stay tuned!). But it has to be short enough that you can remember it when you are at your desk and you get a new idea. By holding the theme in mind, you can then ask, “How does this idea apply?”

Brainstorming Your Book’s Support Materials

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #9.

If we want to attract the attention of a literary agent who will take our manuscript to larger publishers or if we want to approach a smaller publisher on our own, we have some more work to do. If you are writing non-fiction, you will need a book proposal and a query letter; if you are writing fiction, you will need a query letter (and possibly a synopsis). Generating these documents does not need to be a dreaded exercise. Instead, you can use the process to learn more about your own work, which will help you hone it through subsequent revisions, and also be of practical use in your book’s press release, back cover, web copy, and other promotional literature.

I know this won’t shock you, but I think the best way to write your book’s support materials is through a three-draft process. For the first draft, the messy draft, all I recommend doing is answering questions. It is in that spirit then, that we will proceed.

Non-Fiction Book Proposal

The traditional non-fiction book proposal has six sections. You may see numbers that fluctuate from that slightly, but that is because some sources recommend combining certain sections and exploding others. In this PDF we will focus only on the first four: The Overview/About the Audience, About the Author, Marketing & Promotion, and Competitive Titles. After that you will want to present your material in both highly synopsized form in a Proposed Table of Contents and in full-blown fashion in your best Sample Chapters.

Overview/About the Audience

(Length: 2-4 pages, longer if incorporating sample material up front)

Some agents recommend separating these two sections from each other as well as starting with a writing sample—something dramatic that draws people in, either one medium-length story or more short snippets that demonstrate what makes your work unique. I suggest that we combine all of these approaches in the same section and that we make sure to answer these questions:


  • What is the hook of this book?
  • What does your book do that no other books do?
  • What is the title and does it reflect the book’s uniqueness?
  • What is the subtitle and how does it tell the rest of the story?
  • What passages in your book represent this uniqueness most succinctly?


  • How would you define the audience?
  • How do you know them?
  • How do they think?
  • What results can they expect to get from this book?
  • What do they see as their problem or goal?
  • How would you like your book to affect the lives of your readers?
  • How would you describe the tone of voice you use to reach these readers?


  • What is the genre of your book?
  • Where would it be housed in a bookstore, or what would people search for online?

You can think about your Overview as your “Highlights of Qualifications,” for those of you who have been on the job search lately or are in charge of interviewing candidates. It’s not the worst thing in the world to repeat yourself either, both in the Overview and in the sections that are to follow. If you’ve read Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), you know how I feel about repetitions (with variation!).

About the Author

(Length: 1-2 pages)

Literary agents and smaller publishers want to know about you—and not just the fact that you’re not psychotic. This is the section to tell us about you, both from the perspective of the traditional CV and who you really (also?) are.


  • What are your largest accomplishments in the field in which you are writing?
  • What awards have you received?
  • What have you written and where has it been published?
  • What degrees do you hold?
  • Where have you been recognized as an expert in your field?

(Also) You

  • What makes you unique?
  • How did you get into this line of work?
  • Where does your interest in this area come from within yourself, or when did you realize you had empathy with people who read about this topic?

Marketing & Promotion

(Length: 1-3 pages)

Having defined your audience in the Overview, in this section you will talk about how you plan to reach them. Numbers are key here; I spoke with an agent recently who said the only thing that really matters is your book’s concept and your platform. By platform, she meant how many people you currently reach. Numbers, in other words.

Scope of Activities

  • When it comes to the active promotion of your book, where will you be putting your attentions?
  • Are there conferences where you can speak and support your book?
  • Are there organizations that might buy your book in bulk?
  • Could your book be taught?
  • How much time do you have to devote to the promotion of your book, and how naturally do these efforts dovetail with your current position?
  • What media outlets are currently waiting to help you publicize your book?
  • Where are your current contacts?


  • How many people visit your website monthly?
  • How many followers do you have on Facebook (or friends depending on whether you have a personal or professional page), Twitter or Instagram?
  • How many connections do you have on LinkedIn, or followers if you use their publishing platform?
  • How many subscribers are there on your email newsletter list?
  • What about the organizations who will get the word out about your book—what are their numbers?

In this section, you can also speak to the valuable lessons you have learned from the promotion of your other works or your career in general—either about your audience or yourself—that might inform your promotional effort. Clips that showcase you as an expert in your field are great—ones that show you as mediagenic are even better. Some people get crazy with color, images, and live links here; others stick with plain text. Right now we’re just trying to figure out which direction your most magnetic and connected side faces.

Competitive Titles

(Length: 2-3 pages)

The way I usually approach this section is to begin with one opening paragraph about your book. This is followed by 3-5 individual entries on the other top books in your field, and possibly a brief conclusion (or if your opener to this section is strong enough, you may have covered everything already).


  • What is your book about, really?
  • How might you compare it to other books on the subject in terms of style, content, and/or voice?
  • How does it fit in with what’s out there?

Individual Books

  • What are the top-selling books in the genre your book belongs to (as identified in the Overview), and/or what are the emblematic books in this genre that everybody knows?
  • What works well about these particular books?
  • What has changed in the world or about your subject since these particular books were published?
  • What part of your subject do these particular books not cover (that yours does)?

We have to be careful not to put other books down too much in this section—it will be the same publishing house editors who are reviewing your proposal that purchased these other books! Depending on your genre, I think it is useful to note that readers often don’t have just one book in the fields of writing reference, say, or business memoir— therefore you can shade this discussion toward how your book complements the others and present its publication as a kind of win-win. I have even gone so far as to sometimes retitle this section, “Comparative Titles,” in that light.

Query Letter

The query letter to literary agents or smaller publishers is often broken down into three paragraphs, which are presented in the following order:

  • The Hook
  • The Book
  • The Cook (the author)

Okay, the cook is kind of stupid… but it rhymes. You can consult the Overview section of the non-fiction book proposal above for help brainstorming your hook, except, instead of writing 2-4 pages, try to write one paragraph. Likewise, if you need inspiration for how to describe yourself (the cook, final wince) you can look in the About the Author section.

For how to describe your book, I recommend you consult PDF #6. It walks you through how to generate a four-sentence statement of what your book is about, which you can use as your elevator pitch here in the middle paragraph.

I know there are people who don’t agree with me, but I think when you approach a literary agent with both a query letter and a non-fiction book proposal, it’s okay to repeat yourself in both documents. Readers don’t pick up 100 percent of what you are putting down. Especially if the next time they see something, you are varying it, putting a spin on it; I think that’s just sound argument making. We’ll see if it works!

Seven Themes from Well-Known Narratives

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #7.

Sometimes I get asked if I think that every great work of narrative has a single theme that sustains it. In other words, does a book have to be about one thing in order to be great?

The answer is no, of course. I am suggesting your book can only be about one thing because of the helpfulness such a construction brings, not because it is some hard-and-fast rule. I suggest a theme because it can give you a mantra to focus your mind.

There was a period of my life when I was into reading Russian novels. I loved Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In fact, it saved my life one summer when I was working my most menial of waiting-tables jobs. That said, structurally that book is a mess. It seems to repeat entirely 200 pages; I’m not sure it was even edited.

If you take Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, on the other hand, the theme is present on the first page. In fact, it is the very first line:

Theme #1:

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Tolstoy then goes on to give us 800+ pages, but if we ever forget what this book is about, we can go back to page one and refresh ourselves.

Sometimes the theme comes at the end of a work instead. J. K. Rowling’s theme for the entire Harry Potter series comes in the seventh and final volume; imagine writing a theme not just for one book but for seven books all in the same sentence:

Theme #2:

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

With a series that spans more than 4,000 pages and has such a large and devoted following, I can’t imagine that a single person out there would disagree with me. That’s a joke. Nonetheless, we will press on, and I will present Potter scholar C.S. Plocher’s rationale for the above theme she chose:

“The biggest theme in the Harry Potter series is the fight between good and evil. Snape plays a big part in that theme because we’re not sure for most of the series if he’s a good guy or a bad guy. Rowling puts a twist on the classic ‘good and evil’ when we find out in the end that Snape is fighting for the good guys but not really for the right reason. Snape loved Harry’s mother and he felt responsible for her death, so he became a double agent for the good side even though he’s ‘spiteful’ and ‘a bully’ (Rowling’s words). Rowling summed up the whole idea in the last book in her series when she wrote on a tombstone, ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’


I’m not sure if that’s what you were looking for?”

That’s what we’re looking for, all right. Your theme can be stated as a maxim, moral, or message, all of which have different shades of expression. Rowling’s theme is what I would call a maxim. We find an example of moral in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story “The Ugly Duckling.”

Theme #3:

“It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard, if only you come out of a swan’s egg.”

It’s a moral because it has a more specific value system assigned to it. Something in between a maxim and a moral is a message. A message is never fully expressed, except through a variety of examples that all add up to something larger than the sum of its parts. In Don Freeman’s children’s book Corduroy, the message is an anti-materialist screed about what’s really important in life. That’s my reading of all the iterations of the I’ve Always Wanted series [for more, see chapter one of Book Architecture (BA)]. The fifth iteration in this series reads:

Theme #4

“I know I’ve always wanted a home.”

A message can exist within one series or at the crossroads of several different series; if it is the latter, it will likely need to be stated a few different ways, as Joseph Heller does in his novel Catch-22:

Theme #5

“Immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.”
“There just doesn’t seem to be any logic to this system of rewards and punishment.” (If you’ve ever seen the film version of Catch-22, you will either love it or hate it, but I think it does a good job of presenting this theme to the viewer. The movie was based on a 450-page book, so what more do you want?)

When narratives are written specifically for film, it is easier to write the theme directly into one of the character’s speeches so that it becomes memorable, since a screenplay is usually fewer than 30,000 words. That’s what Aaron Sorkin did in The Social Network when Eduardo says:

Theme #6

“See, in a world where social structure was everything, that (the ability to invite— or not invite—friends to join Facebook) was the thing.”

Every chance I get, I praise this film for the way even the tangential scenes all relate to series and contribute to the theme of Exclusivity. (For more, see chapter four of BA).

And now we have arrived at my favorite of the seven themes I chose to include in this PDF/blog. It comes from the film Slumdog Millionaire.

Theme #7

“What the hell can a slumdog possibly know?”

Why is it my favorite? For one thing, its elegance is straightforward. For another, it indicates not only the Inspector’s character but also the attitude of millions of people regarding India’s caste system. But best of all, it also directs the main action of the film (what I have called the central series) and gives us the beginning, the middle, and the end.

All in eight words. No pressure.

The Series Arc

Finish Your Book in Three Drafts (3D), the third book in the Book Architecture trilogy, came accompanied by a wealth of writing know-how in the form of 9 bonus PDFs. We are opening up the vault for the first time and publishing them here: one blog at a time. Behold, PDF #8.

It’s probably a little late in the game to start introducing the series arc, but I wanted you to know about its existence; so, better late than never. The series arc is one of three tools I introduce in Book Architecture (BA). Like the series grid, it is relatively easy to set up.

The first thing to do is to complete a grid for a particular series. It helps to have all of the iterations gathered together before you make your series arc; that way you can feel the differences in emotion and consequence of each in relation to the others.

The simplest grid contains two iterations. A series with only one iteration will never go anywhere; it won’t even register enough to catch a reader’s interest. But two iterations can work because the first one establishes the series’ identity, and the second one represents its change.

The Money series in the children’s book Corduroy is a great example of a two-iteration series. At the beginning of the story, Lisa wants the teddy bear, Corduroy, but her mother turns her down. “I’ve spent too much already. Besides, he doesn’t look new. He’s lost the button to one of his shoulder straps.” At the end of the story, Lisa springs into action. “Last night,” she announces to Corduroy, “I counted what I’ve saved in my piggy bank and my mother said I could bring you home.” These two iterations show the difference between spending—“I’ve spent too much already”—and saving—“Last night I counted what I’ve saved in my piggy bank…” Sort of a “God bless the child/who’s got his own” thing.

When we put it into a grid, it looks like this:
 It may only appear twice, but the Money series makes all the difference in the world, influencing the relationship between Lisa and Corduroy more than anything else that happens— her thrift is the reason his quest ends favorably.

The repetitions let us know what we are talking about, while the variations give us the direction: things are getting better (improvement), or things are getting worse (deterioration). When something changes, you can plot the narrative arc of that series, what we call the series arc.

Here is the simplest series arc there can be, showing the two iterations of the Money series. The change is also pretty simple: no money, no Corduroy; money, Corduroy. It is so simple, in fact, that this isn’t even really an arc—more of just a line. You need three points on a line to make an arc.

These arcs will get progressively fancier as we go forward, but their rationale remains the same: they demonstrate the direction and degree of movement of your series. You can always make an arc of one of your series by grabbing some graph paper and producing an x-axis (horizontal), which spreads the narrative out from the beginning to the end, and labeling the y-axis (vertical) from DETERIORATION to IMPROVEMENT. If you saw the word “axis” and your blood pressure rose, relax—there aren’t going to be any stressful tests; we’re only going to discuss what value graphing the series arc can bring to your storytelling. Finding where you want to plot an iteration horizontally is pretty easy: You just find the place in the story where it exists. Finding where you want to plot the iteration vertically is really more of an art than a science. The truth is, if you use your intuition, you’ll be fine.

In Corduroy, the two iterations span virtually the entire book: of 28 pages, the first appears on p. 3 and the second on p. 23. Otherwise known as the beginning and the end. If you want to put in a middle, you will need a third iteration, such as we find in the Erica & Mark series in the film The Social Network.

Mark is Mark Zuckerberg, the genius but socially inept Harvard student behind the founding of the now mega social media site Facebook. His girlfriend at the beginning of the film is Erica Albright, a student who attends Boston University (BU).

In the first iteration, they break up, Erica “clarifying” why girls won’t like Mark and then leaving the bar. The second iteration comes exactly in the middle of the film. Mark runs into Erica at a club; he wants to properly apologize to her for some of his past actions, but he can’t convince her to leave the table where she is dining with her friends. The third iteration of this series comes at the very end of the film as Mark continues to refresh his computer screen to see if Erica Albright has accepted his friend request on Facebook.

I have put the running time in minutes on the x-axis (and don’t worry, I still had to scroll back to see which axis was which). The first scene occupies the first five minutes of the film; the second scene comes between minutes 53 and 55; the last scene concludes the movie, from one hour and 53 minutes until the end.

The irony of this last scene is magical. Mark has become the youngest billionaire in the world on account of Facebook’s success, yet the site that eventually got him into the exclusive upper society he wanted so badly to be a part of is also what has allowed Erica to exclude him from her life by not friending him. It is certainly not a happy ending.

The impact of this series comes from the fact that Erica only appears these three times in the film. The Erica & Mark series is a perfectly spaced three-iteration series that puts the architecture in Book Architecture, as far as I’m concerned. The other thing to notice about this arc is that it does not rise up like that ubiquitous narrative arc we are all used to seeing. Below is the series arc of the Weather series in Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, “The Ugly Duckling” (for more see chapter three in Blueprint Your Bestseller). But you can probably open up any book on writing and see something that looks like this:

Even though we quoted William Dean Howells in PDF #3 who said that “Americans love a tragedy with a happy ending,” not every series arc needs to improve by the end. Here is an arc from Franz Kafka’s novella, The Metamorphosis, which describes the main character’s decomposition after he has awoken one day in the form of a giant insect.

He scrapes himself trying to get out of his bedroom at the beginning of the story, leaving him bleeding profusely and limping. His fortunes improve briefly—even the most determined arc usually changes direction at least once for tension—when it looks like his wounds have entirely healed. But then his eating slows down, he loses his eyesight, he stops eating, he can’t move at all, and he dies.

That’s a pretty Kafkaesque-looking arc. And now, let’s look at graphing multiple narrative arcs to foster connections and establish pace. Because there isn’t just one narrative arc in any story with depth. And getting your arcs to work together is what creates complexity and nuance and resonance.

Here is the series arc from the Family’s Fortune series of The Metamorphosis:

I won’t go into extensive detail about these iterations [for more, see chapter seven of Book Architecture (BA)]. Suffice it to say that when Gregor, the sole wage earner in the family, wakes up as a dung beetle, it doesn’t bode well for any of them. As Gregor’s condition deteriorates, so does the family’s fortune—until he dies—then things start looking up for them.

When we plot both arcs on top of each other, we get something that looks like this:

This is how you get complex effects, through the interactions and intersections of series—the collisions where the energy in the story comes from. This kind of contingency, where one series depends on another, is a great reason to draw two series arcs on the same graph.

That spot just before the end where Gregor dies (around p. 105 of p. 126), is what we call a key scene, where the reader’s expectations are (at least partially) satisfied and where there is an emotional payoff. If you watch that spot when we lay two more series arcs on top of the current graph, you can see the complexity that results from such an event as the main character’s death.

The dark blue line which went up just slightly after this key scene is the relationship between Gregor and his sister, Grete. Having been on a fairly steep decline since the middle of the book when Grete’s distaste for her once-beloved brother began to consume her, she now responds to his death with a kind of bittersweet reaction: “Just look how skinny he was. He went such a long time without eating anything all.”

A key scene is one of the discoveries you can make by plotting your series arcs. It is also something you can use arcs to engineer importance…or if that verbiage o ends your artistic soul, something that can illuminate your perspective on how things are unfolding in your narrative. Questions naturally arise when you are constructing an arc:

  • What am I missing from an individual series?
  • How do these two series work together?
  • Where are certain series going up while others are going down?

You can chart as many series arcs as you think might benefit your process. When we regard our collection of series arcs all together, we might be tempted to call what we have created a “plot.” But if we do use this word, let’s not go overboard and follow someone else’s recommendations for how to construct the ideal plot. A plot is something you evolve into. A series arc, on the other hand, is something you do.