Welcome guest Veronica Heley with more great writing advice!
Which is more important, theme or plot?
Theme should be woven into the plot, so that one is integral to the other. Combining the two, you create an emotional hook to capture and retain the reader's interest, and leave them thinking about your book long after they've finished reading it.
Can you have a book which is all plot, without any theme? Some all-action spy or crime dramas might seem at first sight to have no message. Overall they usually evince two strands; one is that a hunter is never satisfied until he's brought down his quarry, and the other is that crime/spying fails to provide the protagonist with a satisfying lifestyle.
Can you can tie some examples of themes to well-known books and writers? Here are a few examples to get you thinking.
Romance, prejudice, social comment.......Jane Austen, Barbara Cartland
Destruction, reconstruction.......Tolstoy/War & Peace, Nevil Shute/A Town like Alice
Rites of passage, sins of the fathers, redemption.......Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner
Triumph of good over evil.......crime stories, JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Nurturing talent, taking control of one's life.......Tracy Chevalier/The Pearl Earring
Catharsis through suffering.......Catherine Cookson
You may decide to highlight politically correct themes, or current affairs. Charles Dickens' books, for instance, contained strong themes: indignation over workers' rights, Insolvency, bankruptcy. Damaging pride in various forms. The redeeming power of love and friendship. Self-improvement. The corruption of power. Self-delusion.
People and the way they react to circumstances don't change - but ethics do.
What do you see as possible themes of relevance to society today? Social equality through education, equal pay, pension rights? Or perhaps animal activism, drugs or care in the community?
What theme would you like to explore in your writing? Here are a few powerful ones.
Loss of love, loneliness. Grief and death. Coming to terms with widowhood. Improving one's lot through education, learning from life. Dealing with a lack of self-worth, with evil and with selfishness in others. A new baby as a symbol of hope. Learning how to forgive wrongs. Dealing sensibly or otherwise with money. Stewardship. Revenge. Ambition.
A series of books will probably contain more than one theme. I use several themes in the Eden Hall series, such as lack of self-worth, and forgiveness, but I also write about how a community can be affected by economic factors. In the Ellie Quicke series, my theme is how a fiftyish woman learns to cope with her new life as a widow, and becomes a stronger person in doing so...with side-swipes at the greed and ambition which rule her daughter's life.
Theme and character: What theme or themes you include will shape how your characters develop - and therefore influence the plot. For instance, if you wish to write about revenge, the type of character you choose would influence how he or she might go about exacting vengeance. A weak woman might choose a non-confrontational method, a strong man might go for physical assault. The theme is the same, but the way it is worked out would be different because the characters are different.
Whatever theme or character or plot you choose, it is generally true that a successful book, a book that lingers in the mind, will provide some kind of closure at the end.not only of the plot, but also of the theme. Except in a series where the basic set-up is reproduced time and again, there can be some movement - however slight - to show development of character. This can happen even in a series, though once you've settled on a winning formula, it's hard to improve on it!