Everything everyone has ever written is about something. Even the simplest note has some underlying message, every shopping list begins with some intent, even if it’s as simple as “every home needs toilet paper” or as personal as “the things my doctor told me to start eating so I won’t die.”

How could something as huge as a novel be any different?

One of the early chapters in my book The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction is entitled “Have Something to Say.” There I get into the concept of theme. Now, “theme” is a word that can have multiple definitions, but for me it simply asks: What is the idea at the heart of your story—what do you have to say?

In that book, I wrote:

The theme of your novel is a choice only you can make. If you try to take a stand you don’t believe in, your story will ring hollow. Your novel requires your unique political perspective, moral compass, ingrained ethics, religious beliefs, and worldview.

I think this is one of the two wellsprings from which a novel begins to form. The other is the even looser concept of the “idea,” which we’ve touched on recently too. The idea is the beginning of a narrative, or some bit of story that appears maybe even fully formed in your imagination, but theme is what you’re using that idea to communicate, or as Jane Yolen wrote in her brilliant book Take Joy:

Writing a story is a great deal like building a house. There is all that paperwork before you even begin. Notes. Research. The jotting down of ideas. But the most important beginning step is still warming things up at ground level so you can erect your story over that important foundation—the theme. For that is what theme really is—the sub-basement of whatever tale you are planning to tell.

Not everyone has to be a “political author,” and not every book has to be a “political book,” but any story should start with something you have to say. And everyone has something to say. If you’re a human in the world, you have something to say and the right to say it, and you can deliver that message in the form of fiction.

I’ll admit to some reluctance in using that word “message,” which runs the risk of being read as me advising everyone to pick sides, to beat each other over the head with some kind of specific political gripe, but that’s not at all what I’m saying. What you have to say doesn’t have to be all that controversial or in any way confrontational. George Orwell went on the offensive in 1984, but other authors, like, say, C.S. Lewis, rounded the edges of his message in the Narnia series, but both authors had something to say and they said it.

Everybody knows by now that I’m a huge Dune fan, and I’ve been slowly working my way through the whole series, including the new books. I’ve finished the books that I’d read previously—and I basically never re-read books, but I re-read those—and I’ve made it to where I wandered off in the 1980s. Last week I started in on Heretics of Dune, which was published about twenty years after the original. In a brief introduction to that book, author Frank Herbert mused a bit on what he set out to do when he wrote the original novel:

It was to be a story exploring the myth of the Messiah.

It was to produce another view of a human-occupied planet as an energy machine.

It was to penetrate the interlocked workings of politics and economics.

It was to be an examination of absolute prediction and its pitfalls.

It was to have an awareness drug in it and tell what could happen through dependence on such a substance.

Potable water was to be an analog for oil and for water itself, a substance whose supply diminishes each day.

It was to be an ecological novel, then, with many overtones, as well as a story about people and their human concerns with human values, and I had to monitor each of these levels at every stage in the book.

I find this fascinating, and I’d like us to think of this in terms of an exercise.

Before you start your next novel or short story, in your notes or even just in your head, think about what you have to say, embracing at least one, and any combination of Herbert’s: It is to be…

  • It is to be a story that does some particular thing—that has some specific goal in mind.
  • It is to produce another view of an institution, way of life, philosophy, religion, ideology (etc. that exists or existed in the real world.
  • It is to penetrate the workings of an institution that exists or existed in the real world.
  • It is to be an examination of something happening or that has happened or I think might happen in the real world.
  • It is to have a particular thing, possibly heavily fictionalized, that is of concern in the real world.
  • It is to be a [?] novel in which [?] could be any combination of one or some of: political, entertaining, romantic, funny, heartbreaking, eye-opening, etc.—and this list could go on almost forever. But the point is, it’s a novel that has some kind of point of view—your point of view.

Then start writing. And don’t be surprised when, at the end, you find you’ve written something at least a little different from what you intended.


—Philip Athans

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Adam says:

    Ideas or themes are often the most elusive and evanescent of aspects of a story. More often than not they feel more like an afterthought than an integral part of the story, but I think you have provided some strong tools for more directly engaging the ideas, and starting with an idea/theme, rather than a character or conflict.
    Thank you for sharing.

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