A novel that has a theme - that is, something to say, a message - has a weight to it that a novel without a theme cannot achieve. I'm sure there are those that might disagree with this, but I believe it is generally accepted as true.

With the above in mind therefore, where does this weight, or power, come from? Here's what I mean:

It is widely known that you should not preach to your reader, or come right out and express the theme (save in certain circumstances). This, unsurprisingly, leads to an amount of camouflage where the theme is concerned.

Every now and then, I will come across a novel that has overused this camouflage. The theme is so well hidden that I do not see it, sometimes until the novel is well over.

Here's my question: In books like this which over-hide the theme, is the power of the theme still present, even though the reader doesn't see it? Or does the reader have to see the theme in order for it to have an effect on the reading experience?

I ask because it can sometimes be difficult to keep the level of 'theme camouflage' in the comfort zone - that is, not staring the reader in the face, but still apparent enough to be seen. If, however, I can bury the theme as far as I want with no risk of losing the power it conveys, this job is made infinitely easier.


6 Answers 6


Why are people willing to die in a revolution? Why do they sacrifice their lives to charitable work? Why do they protest against injustice even if it's not their own cause?

This is the inner desire, our inner will to make a change for the better, to cause a memorable impact.

If a book is immersive and the cause presented synergizes with beliefs of the reader, it wakes the same emotions that give a revolutionary the bravery and willpower to charge with a club on armed forces of the dictator. It's a thrill like none other, a true rage, love, hope.

Of course there are prerequisites. The first is excellent writing, because a sloppily written story will not captivate. Next comes immersion. The story must become more for the reader than just a referred tale - it must become a gate to that world, must make them live and feel what the protagonist feels, form a personal, emotional bond instead of just following the facts. And finally, the idea must speak to the beliefs of the reader, to take root in their hearts.

That's why readers will disagree about specific books - some consider given book merely decent, while others will call it brilliant. It's whether the idea was jarring or agreeing with given reader - even if the story itself was good, the "bonus effect" may not be available to all.

And then we arrive at your last point, the 'camouflage' as you call it. It's nothing else than the basic, most fundamental tenet of a writer: "Show, don't tell." Instead of shoving that idea down the reader's throat through lectures and rants, it is shown in action. Its effects work their magic on the fictional world, it changes the people, it makes empires crumble. You may not even be able to name the idea, but you can perceive the primal cause of the change and support it, believe in it.

And of course if the idea is just a background theme, a side dish to a meaningless action, it won't "catch", it will remain an unimportant side theme. Too well hidden, as you'd call it.

So the answer is simple: keep the idea in foreground, make it very important to the characters and events, but hardly ever name it and don't preach about it - instead, show its might through the events, and the impact will be there. If you start preaching, you're badly violating the first rule of writing, "show, don't tell", and as result the very first prerequisite for the idea to "catch": "excellent writing". And if the idea takes a farther place, out of main focus - it gets lost of course.

  • Actual story from not long ago: "No, doctor, don't mind the high blood pressure, it's not that high normally, just a momentary fluke. I was reading a book in the waiting room, and right before you called me in, the villain did something so horrible it made me all shake with rage." "But it's just a book! A fiction!" "Yes, I know, but it's written so well I just can't help it..."
    – SF.
    Apr 16, 2015 at 19:07

In the case of a story I am toying with, the theme (or more accurately, the idea) I am trying to bring across has a bearing on the structure of the story, the plot and the different details I bring out or emphasise in different parts of the story.

Since these elements are determined in part by the theme, they should, in theory, cohere well together. Since all the elements of the story are driving at the same goal, they fit together as a whole while adding an additional layer on top.

In my mind, it is this coherence and layering that adds weight to a novel with a theme. I'm no writer but my wife is an artist and she has also said as much. To take a lesson from art, the message will have the most effect when it is implicit rather than explicit. How does the lighting and shading, the emotion in the brush strokes and the relationships between the different elements make us feel?

In the same way, the theme shouldn't come out in the writing but in the underlying structures. I suppose it is the same as the "show don't tell" motif; show the theme to the reader as it bubbles up out of your story, coming from everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Don't give them blunt force trauma by making it too explicit.


I don't think the power or weight of a message, if well-written, is lost or changed by being camouflaged or not. Some premises are made very obvious early on (think His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman), but that explicit theme doesn't detract from the book; unless you do not like the message. If someone is not aligned with your message, it will be rejected regardless of the level of camouflage - it's an innate sense that most people have, and a lack of open-mindedness that causes a well-written message to fail.


At least part of why we read is to learn something --that doesn't mean the characters in the story need to learn something, and it doesn't necessarily mean a moral lesson. You might simply learn what it feels like to be put in an extreme situation, for instance.

Having a theme enhances this sense of learning, and without it, one may feel somehow cheated. On the other hand if the lesson is too explicit, clumsy, or at odds with the plot, that also feels like being cheated (out of an entertaining and believable narrative with its own sense of integrity).

In the case that the theme is subtle, the reader could a) miss it entirely, in which case the reader would probably have the same reaction as to a themeless book, b) perceive the theme subconsciously, which may lead the book to feel unexpectedly satisfying or c) discover it belatedly, which, for many readers would be a happy surprise, and a suggestion that the book is worth close study and/or repeated readings.


This is a cool question. I think in the case you speak of, the author may not have been writing with a specific theme in mind. The author could have just been telling a story, throwing characters into hell and seeing how the characters react so to speak. Some authors don't write with a theme in mind, but let the readers interpret the work how they see fit.

I think the only thing that gives a theme weight is how the theme effects the reader.


The power comes from the fact that the premise (as it is called) is a commonly accepted truth, something that everyone wants to be true (e.g. in the end, evil gets punished), or something that you manage to show to be true. The latter is the most difficult, but the most powerful.

Search for the book "The Moral Premise" by Stanley D. Williams.

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