Of Plots and Themes
Every novel has a plot, which is the story line (what happens). But most good novels also have a theme, which is the underlying message the writer wants the readers to understand. Most authors include themes naturally in their writing, but it’s important to clarify your themes and be able to discuss them with readers. We often choose our favorite themes based on our life experiences or on a particular interest.
Probably because I’ve worked as as a private investigator, one of my favorite themes is how public perception of people and events can be very different from the truth. The media (and the various prejudices we all have) also play a big part in this confusion. So for my mystery novel ENDANGERED, the plot is the search for a toddler who vanishes from a campground, but the theme is how media coverage can tilt public opinion in disastrous ways. In the next novel in my Sam Westin mystery series, BEAR BAIT, the plot is the quest to solve the riddles of a mysterious explosion, forest fire, and injury to a young woman, but the theme is how we all make assumptions based on appearances. And in my most recent Sam Westin mystery, BORDERLAND, the plot is the search for a young Hispanic American woman last seen at the US-Mexico border wall; the theme is how the border wall disrupts the lives of both people and wildlife in the area.
I used my investigation experience in SHAKEN, my romantic suspense novel. I know how difficult it can be for a person to prove innocence after being accused of a crime, so I used that idea for the plot of this novel, where my character Elisa Langston is accused of insurance fraud after an earthquake and series of vandalism and arson incidents. Elisa is half Guatemalan, and at an early age, her Mayan mother returned to Guatemala, leaving Elisa behind to be raised in her father’s very “Anglo” family. She loves them, but she doesn’t look like them; where does she fit? The theme of this book is that your true “family” includes everyone you choose to let into your heart.
In my mystery/suspense THE ONLY WITNESS, the plot is a police detective’s investigation into what may be a kidnapping or a murder. Detective Matt Finn is stymied by the lack of witnesses or evidence, and is very uncomfortable as the newcomer in a gossipy town where all eyes seem to be trained on him. When he does finally track down the source of an anonymous tip, he’s astounded to discover his only witness is not human. The theme of this book is the value of animals in our world.
I could go on and on, because I've written a lot of books. I'll spare you the lecture. So when a reader asks what a book is "about," that often requires a two-part answer: this is the plot, and this is the theme. Happy Reading!