From the Editor’s Desk: Three Tips on Theme in Nonfiction
Today I’m going to add one final element to that list: theme. The word theme can be a little bit misleading — I find that it tempts one to reduce a story to some simplistic, vague idea: This story’s about friendship. This one is about persistence. This one’s about tolerance.
That’s not quite what I mean, though. “Theme” works as a shorthand, but what I’m actually referring to is something much bigger. It is the point of a story, the guiding idea or ideas that unify that story. As with the three elements I’ve already talked about, the theme of your narrative nonfiction book should reflect deliberate choices that you make as an author.
Here are three things you should keep in mind as you craft your story with an eye to theme.
1. Be aware of your perspective as a writer.
Narrative nonfiction is different from straight nonfiction because it doesn’t just present raw facts. It also reflects the author’s perspective. You are asking a question, or communicating a truth, or exploring an idea. You are telling a story, not giving evidence in a courtroom. Every author should have that in mind when they are writing their book. You are curating scenes, nudging the reader in certain directions with your words. You are crafting a particular narrative — with a particular intention. The aim is always to tell the truth, of course, but also to pay attention to which parts of that truth you find most important to tell, and why.
2. Avoid being didactic.
One of my biggest frustrations as an editor is when stories tack on a moral at the end. A good story doesn’t need to explicitly proclaim some moral message: Tolerance is important! Never give up! Science is cool! Bullies are bad! If the whole story is crafted with a purpose, that should be completely unnecessary. The story should speak for itself. If you’ve been following the principles of crafting a good narrative nonfiction story that I’ve shared so far — making sure your characters come to life, focusing your plot, purposefully selecting the voice of the story — then you will have created a story that speaks for itself, that doesn’t need to barrage the reader with one final statement of purpose. Michelle Markel doesn’t need to tell us how important it is to persevere — Rousseau’s story has done that for the reader. Jen Bryant doesn’t need to show us the value of words — Roget’s life has demonstrated that.
3. Take the reader on an emotional journey.
One of the best ways to avoid being didactic is to remember that the most essential goal of any story, including narrative nonfiction, is simply to take the reader on an emotional journey. The point isn’t to teach the reader a lesson. The point is to walk with them as they discover the lesson for themselves.
Every good story needs to make the reader feel something — and you can think of that “something” as the theme of your book. Again, all of the elements of story that you’ve been building so far — character, plot, voice — should all be working together to accomplish this. If you’ve managed to do this as a writer, then hopefully, the reader will find that their experience of the world has expanded just a little. They’ll find some new truth about what it means to live in this world. But even if they don’t, they will still have enjoyed reading a darn good story.
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Kathleen Merz is managing editor for Eerdmans Books for Young Readers. Read her From the Editor’s Desk column — packed with editorial insight and behind-the-scenes info on Eerdmans books — one Thursday a month here on Eerdlings.