What One Thing is Your Novel About?

by James Scott Bell

In my second year of law school I was part of the Hale Moot Court Honors board. Moot court is a rite of passage for most law students. It’s a mock appellate case with rounds of oral argument before panels of law professors, local attorneys, and perhaps a judge or two. At USC, at least when I was there, the final round was in front of two federal appellate judges and one Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

This particular year our Supreme Court Justice was Thurgood Marshall.

Justice Thurgood Marshall

Marshall was, of course, the first African American appointed to the high court. He was also famous for arguing, and winning, the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which overturned racial segregation in public schools. Being an enthusiastic student of trial lawyers and oral advocacy, I knew that the other side of Brown was argued by one of the most successful Supreme Court lawyers of all time, John W. Davis.

So when I asked Justice Marshall what it was like to go up against Davis, he seemed pleased that I knew about him, and said he was a formidable foe.

Oh, wait. I forgot to mention that I made sure I was selected to pick up Justice Marshall and his wife, Cecilia, at LAX and drive them across town to the campus.

That’s because I wanted to ask Thurgood Marshall a specific question.

So there I was in my green Ford Maverick, sitting as close to a Supreme Court Justice as I will ever get, answering his queries about my law studies, the moot court competition, and life in Los Angeles.

At an opportune moment I said, “Justice Marshall, you’ve delivered and heard so many arguments over the years. What would you say are the characteristics of a great oral argument?”

Without hesitation he said, “The best oral arguments have one main point, and only one.”

Which surprised me. I thought he’d say something about voice and style and performance. Instead, he explained that winning arguments have a precise legal point around which everything else revolves. The advocate’s job is to find that point and apply all his powers of persuasion toward supporting it.

Years later, I heard a similar bit of wisdom from the philosopher Curly. Remember City Slickers? There’s a scene where Curly (Jack Palance) is riding next to Mitch (Billy Crystal) and says, “You know what the secret of life is?”

“No,” Mitch says. “What?

“This.” Curly raises his index finger.

“Your finger?”

“One thing. Just one thing.”

“That’s great. But what’s the one thing?”

“That’s what you gotta figure out.”

Okay, let’s bring all this to bear on writing. In my Story Grinder workshops I ask the students to give me one word that describes what their story is about. In my most recent workshop I got answers such as redemption, forgiveness, justice, revenge.

One student said, “Amnesia.” Which was true on a surface level. I asked him to dig deeper. “What one word describes the heart of your novel?” (He should have said, “I can’t remember,” but we won’t go there.) He thought about it and said, “Identity.”

That was it! He had pinpointed the blood pumping through the veins of his plot. Which is the point of the exercise. When find the right word, you’ll know it. You’ll feel it. And you can use that feeling every time you sit down to work on your story.

Think about your current WIP:

  • What is your main character longing for? Why?
  • What is your main character fighting for? Why? (I mean really…why?)
  • What will your main character know at the end that he doesn’t know at the beginning?
  • How will what he learns change him?
  • Imagine your character a year after the story ends, and another character asks, “Why on earth did you have to go through all that?” How would your character answer?

NOW…give us the one word that describes the heart of your WIP. Where did that come from? Is this a one-off, or do you see this word as a common thread in your other work?


NOTE: I have a FREE short story available today for your Kindle — My Father’s Birthday. It’s a story on the literary side and I hope you enjoy it.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

40 thoughts on “What One Thing is Your Novel About?

  1. Integrity.

    My protagonist is viewed by the world as strong, stout-hearted, and smart and intelligent. (Yes, I think there are subtle difference between the last two qualities.) In fact, she is frightened to confront what she is pursuing. It could kill her. She pursues because it has killed three children of Marines and four of the Marines also pursuing it.

    Integrity is at the heart of every brave warrior, soldier, or cop who has put themselves in extreme danger for the benefit others. Integrity was the silent force that put the oxygen-starved, shivering pilots, navigators, bombardiers, radiomen, and gunners into the B-17s, B-25s, and other American war machines of World War II, when they would rather go into the mess hall and drink coffee and talk about women. Or find a bar and drink pints of ale until they passed out. Or fake illness, or insanity to get out of duty.

    One high-ranking officer–well maybe many high-ranking officers–said the air crews (and we also might say about Marines landing on Japanese-held islands in the Pacific, soldiers storming a deadly beachhead, terrified sailors realizing that depth charges are drifting toward their boat) went out because of their commitment to mission.

    I think it, rather, integrity was the glue that held together their commitment. They were simply guys, some of whom didn’t give a damn about the mission, who were going out to protect their crew mates, their buddies, their officers. Because you don’t let your guys down. Whether or not the mission is successful, your intent is that you and your guys come home together.

    So it is with my protagonist. She has no reason to be where she is other than to protect children. Integrity drives her to do that. She could have ignored the summons from the Marines to come and help.

    But the day she and her husband, just after their honeymoon, visited the Oklahoma City memorial commemorating the horrid day of tragedy when one, fuel-and-fertilizer bomb exploded and killed 168 people including 19 children, she knew she would devote her life to protecting children–as many as she could, including her own children. (The children are commemorated by 19 stylistic chairs that, because they are set on top of glass blocks, give they impression that they are someplace above the surface of the earth. If you can go to that memorial, see those chairs, and walk away without your soul being damaged–well, I don’t think you can do it.)

    That, I think, is the meaning of integrity–the sticking to the mission despite what the mission is–because you believe it is the right thing to do.

    Lisa Trent does. It’s what drives her in all of my novels in the series.

  2. A lot of work for my brain after going out to a fondue restaurant last night for the Hubster’s birthday. But I think most, if not all of my books are about self-acceptance. The tagline for my “Nowhere to Hide” is “The trouble with running away is that you take yourself with you.” For “Danger in Deer Ridge”, it’s “What do you do when your life turns upside down? Whatever it takes.” Variations on those would likely fit just about every novel I’ve written.

      • Silly person, that’s a cookbook or a “Wallace and Gromit” movie. “Cheeeeese, Gromit!”

        If you’re looking for a good short film for the youngsters as well as the adults at Thanksgiving or Christmas, find a “Wallace and Gromit” movie. THE WRONG TROUSERS is a great heist movie. A GRAND DAY OUT, a science fiction visit to the moon for some cheese. THE CURSE OF THE WERE-RABBIT is a full length not-very-horror movie.

  3. Identity (just like your student. And I have to admit that the first word that came to mind was deterioration.)

    Main character is the boy in high school who tries to be nice to everyone, then some physical harm comes to him that completely alters his life, which unlocks what he’s always wanted(his magic power which is triggered my emotional pain), and now he has to learn to control it and form his new life around both these things.

  4. I would love to attend one of your workshops, Jim. Superb post.

    For my true crime book, I would have to go with Remembrance. Some of the victims got justice, some didn’t, but they all deserve to be remembered.

    For my novel, Identity fits my WIP, too. My MC has been learning, little by little, book by book, about her heritage… the good, evil, and frightening truth of who she really is.

    • Remembering the victims…one could argue this is also what the Harry Bosch books are about! Perfect for true crime.

      Identity really does seem like a powerful theme, Sue. For some reason I thought of an old Paul Newman movie, The Young Philadelphians (a soaper that I really like), which has a great ID reveal near the end.

  5. My current WIPs have a common theme–fortitude. The main characters in each suffer losses that reshape their lives. It’s their attitude and what they do with their knowledge and skills that keep them from hiding from life. Doing what has to be done to support or defend themselves and their loved ones means getting up every day and moving forward no matter how hard that is.

  6. At first, I thought my one word would be redemption since my MC is trying to make up for lost time after her parents die in a freak accident.

    But I think it’s discovery now. She’s discovering who her parents really were, their secret past lives, and who she really is.

    It’s a mystery worth the pain. It causes her to become strong in a way she never imagined. And to become vulnerable in the process that breaks the wall of hardness around her heart so she can accept reality and move on.

    Thank you! Great exercise and I would love to attend one of your classes too.

    • I love hearing that from students, i.e., they thought their book was one thing, and they discover it’s really another. They know it when they feel it!

      Thanks for the good word, Cindy.

  7. Wonderful exercise! I love your books and tips!

    I had to think between forgiveness and trust. Both play out in my Christian thrillers, but in the end, the main theme has to be trust.

    Psychopaths. Satanic Cults. Serial Killers. Angels. Demons.

    Gifted with premonitions and dreams, Susannah Daniels will risk anything to save the next victim — except her daughter, a child endowed with the ability to heal — or harm — depending on the state of the recipient’s soul.

    Will Susannah’s misguided attempts to protect her daughter allow their enemy to destroy them?

    In the end, she must trust a Power far greater than herself.

  8. The simplest answer is by genre. Traditional romance: love. Mystery: justice. Action/adventure: adventure. Science fiction: knowledge. Within those parameters, each book is a bit more individual to the writer.

    My first novel (sadly never published) was what is now called supernatural suspense with a romantic subplot. The major theme of connection was in the title, THE POWER THAT BINDS. The main character had lost his connection to those he loved because of his obsession with his magic career. When the career disappeared, he had to learn how to reconnect to others and his true self while dealing with some seriously scary supernatural sh*t trying to kill him.

    The longer you write, the more you realize that certain themes are always there, if not always at the forefront of the novel. Some of mine are family and identity. These themes tend to say more about your inner life than the types of books you write.

  9. Just finished a short story titled “Finley’s Confession”. The one word: Payback. The main character has gotten away with robbery and murder for thirty years but not forever,

    Read “My Father’s Birthday”. A really good story and it inspired me.

    • Thank you kindly, Brian. I appreciate the good word.

      As far as payback, there’s a great a movie with that title starring Mel Gibson, and it certainly is the theme! It’s based on one of the hardest boiled noir novels ever, The Hunter by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake). Love it.

  10. I read your short story, My Father’s Birthday. Got misty eyed at the end. Thank you for a satisfying story.

    Both characters had a transformation.

    I’d guess the One Word is: love

    And I saw a spiritual story there too. We too often see God as exacting vs a loving Father who delights in us.

  11. Since I write romance, the “genre” idea is love. But, the current WIP is about identity: the concealment, discovery, and acceptance of who my main character is.

    A few months ago, I thought I had it nailed when I said my story isn’t about a young woman who’s accidentally transported to a labour camp; it’s about redemption. But, the more I looked at it, redemption only forms one part of that rainbow of themes, and a small one at that. It was always identity: who we have been in the past doesn’t necessarily shape who we will be in the future.

  12. Probably because it’s Sunday and my pastor’s message is still filling my heart, I thought, “I’m a WIP.” Then I dug deep to find the answers to your questions about myself. It was insightful. And it also made me see how everything I write and do is an extension of my personal “one thing.”

  13. Truth.

    There are two MC’s, half-sisters, in my current WIP. And two threads in the story.

    One MC is analytical, pensive, quiet, and brilliant. She becomes involved in a murder mystery when an acquaintance is charged with a murder which she believes he didn’t commit. Although her goal is to find the truth to exonerate him, she also questions her own motives. Is she really interested in truth or only in being right?

    The other MC is artistic, quirky, extroverted, and fun. While supporting her half-sister in the search for a killer, she meets and develops a friendship with a man whom she considers unsuitable as a romantic interest. In the end, she faces her own misconceptions about commitment and love.

    Two MC’s, two threads, one underlying theme.

    Thank you for bringing this up. I hadn’t understood my own story until I went through this exercise!

  14. Identity seems to be the hands-down winner. My MC is an orphan and widow trying to find her father so she can have family and “be someone.” But what if he turns out to be her mother’s killer?

    This centrality of integrity suggests that any novel that has a strong character arc is really a Bildungsroman.

  15. I’d say Justice

    My protagonist is an attorney whose cases involve a misinterpretation of law or fact that puts a normal law abiding individual in fear of life in prison or death by the state or some pissed off individual. Somehow, her client’s problems always seem to spill into her private life, throwing off the precarious balance between an overly protective police detective boyfriend, a too loving intrusive mother and a manipulative assistant she couldn’t possibly do without.

    If I had any sympathy for my character I would write a scene where she hops into her classic Triumph and gets the hell out of dodge.

  16. Vulnerability, Jim. Your piece made me think. I think my stories – fiction and true crime – are about victim vulnerability and how common people get caught beyond their control. Somehow these stories might help prevent vulnerable people from being victims.

  17. Reconciliation. My current WIP is about three families with past tragedies that have created deep divides in their relationships. Each family must face secrets, lies, manipulation, tragic deaths …oh, getting close to home, here.

    Mr. Bell, as I pondered your excellent post and the question at the end, I realized that the writing I want to do, and the theme I know best is “reconciliation”. The reason I know that theme best is rooted in my own family conflicts and sadness-in some of us walking away from each other.

    At the end of the day, when there are no more stories for me to write, those are the stories I want to have written. The ones that say the relationships we forge on this earth are the one thing, and we must do them well. The ones that say, if you have to choose between living with things and living with people, choose people for God’s sake. I want to go to my grave knowing I wrote about that one thing, that I wrung that one thing-reconcile!-out of every paragraph, sentence, and word.

    Thanks for making me think, sir.

    • At the end of the day, when there are no more stories for me to write, those are the stories I want to have written.

      That is such an important point, and one many writers (I’m afraid) don’t ponder. What do you want to leave behind? What do you want to be proud of?

      Excellent thought, Deb.

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