Thinking Theme: The Heart of the Matter

Thinking Theme, the new book in the Red Sneaker Writers Book series, goes on sale today. You’ll want to be the first kid on your block to have all the wonderful goodness inside this book, and of course, to keep your set up to date.

Are you thinking–really, theme? Meh. Then don’t. It may be more interesting–and more important–than you suspect. I started this series with a topic rarely discussed–story structure–and now I’m doing it again. The relative lack of chatter on this topic isn’t because it isn’t important. It’s because it’s an elusive topic that even some successful writers haven’t quite wrapped their heads around.

Here’s what I see as the most important distinction between this book and others in the series. The first seven–Story Structure, Creating Character, Perfecting Plot, Dynamic Dialogue, Promising Premise, Sizzling Style, and Excellent Editing–were all about the craft of writing. This one is about the art of writing. Let me answer a few questions that may pop into your head as you read this. Is art important in today’s publishing marketplace? Yes. Can art be taught? Yes–at least to some extent. It may be more accurate to say what’s being taught is the ability to recognize art, to know what you’re looking for, to seize upon the trace elements that emerge in the early drafts of your story and turn them into something larger, something that catapults your book from the ordinary to the blissfully extraordinary.

Here’s an excerpt from Thinking Theme in which I discuss how I’ve found and deployed theme in my novels:

In Cruel Justice, I told a story in which Ben Kincaid tackles the defense of a developmentally disabled young man accused of murder. This case also involves Ben with a high society sort who wants to be a good father—but doesn’t know how. Ben’s friend Mike has to save his ex-wife’s son—apparently not realizing the child is his own. And Ben learns some startling truths about his deceased father. But it was several drafts into the book before I thought—


Never mind what’s happening with the murders and the courtroom and such. This book is about fatherhood. Which shouldn’t have surprised me, since my first son had been born shortly before I started writing it.

There was just one problem. The parent who brought the case to Ben’s attention, who schemed and connived to get Ben to take the case—was the young man’s mother.

That got changed in a hurry, once I realized what this book was about. The mother became a father, which worked better anyway. And when the review came out from Publishers Weekly, there was nothing but praise. They called it “…Bernhardt’s rumination on good fathers, bad fathers, and fathers never known.”

I almost cried. I distinctly remember thinking this was the best book in the series. In fact, I thought it was the best work I’d done to date, period.

More recently, I completed the nineteenth Ben Kincaid novel (time flies when you’re having fun). And once again, it was several drafts into the writing process before I realized what I was writing about. I was sitting in an airport restaurant, waiting for my delayed flight to depart, reading someone else’s book, when the central idea bubbled up to the surface of my brain. You didn’t bring Ben’s sister back just for continuity’s sake, a voice said. You did it because they have unfinished business. And I realized that was the emotional core of the story. Once the book’s theme came together, I had the ammunition I needed to deepen the characters and enrich the plot.

(End of excerpt)

I hope you’ll check out Thinking Theme, preferably today, so it can have a good showing on its release date. Here are some links:

Thinking Theme

Cruel Justice

Justice Returns

And by the way, next year’s Red Sneaker Writers Conference will be over Labor Day weekend in Oklahoma City. The website will go live in a few weeks. In the meantime, save those dates on your calendar!


2 thoughts on “Thinking Theme: The Heart of the Matter”

  1. I’m just wrapping The Trait, my third Ben Kaye novel (and I swear… I created the character before I met you or heard of Ben Kincaid!) and this was the book where I discovered underlying theme. It makes, I hope, readers think and the story is better for it. So I agree 100%!

    1. Glad you’re on board. I want to read one of your books. Apparently we’re just both drawn to short Names with hard “K”s. Is THE TRAIT your favorite? Should we start at the beginning?

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