Identifying a Novel’s Themes Using the Title and the Blurb

by Sara Letourneau
published in Reading

We usually need to read a novel in order to identify its themes. However, what if the title and the blurb (a.k.a. jacket copy) could suggest potential themes? It’s not a stretch sometimes. In today’s edition of Theme: A Story’s Soul, we’ll explore how both items can reveal a great deal about the ideas and lessons the story might explore.

First Things First: How are the Title and the Blurb Important to a Novel?

The title and the blurb tag-team for the most crucial role in book promotion: creating an exciting first impression. The title acts as a headline. It’s strong, concise, and meant to grab a reader’s attention. It also hints at the plot, genre, or a central idea to the story.

The blurb, on the other hand, is like a 30-second sales pitch. In roughly two paragraphs, it tells readers who the lead character(s) is, when and where the story takes place, and what may be at stake – without giving much away. After all, the blurb’s purpose is not to divulge the entire story, but to tease us with enough details to make us want to read it.

With so little information (and so few words) to go on, though, how we can play detective and find possible themes in the title and the blurb? It comes down to knowing which questions to ask that dig into the heart of what theme is.

Developing a List of Theme-Related Questions

Let’s revisit our working definition of “theme” from the first A Story’s Soul article:

Theme: An idea, concept, or lesson that appears repeatedly throughout a story, reflects the character’s internal journey through the external plot, and resonates with the reader.

Think about the middle third of the definition. If the external plot influences the protagonist’s character arc, aspects of that plot (events, conversations, even objects) might show underlying themes, especially if they illustrate conflict. And if you study a novel’s title or blurb closely enough, you’ll find clues about select plot points and potential sources of conflict – and, therefore, possible themes.

Also, as discussed in our previous article, the external plot threatens the protagonist’s values, passions, worries – things that the protagonist cares about, and reasons for the reader to be invested. These intangibles become themes because the character spends the novel striving to save them. Now, look at some examples of book titles and blurbs. Do you see a common method for hooking readers? Yes, by implying what’s personally at stake for the protagonist, the title and the blurb reveal themes while motivating readers to care about the outcome before they’ve started reading. Neat, huh?

Now we can develop a list of questions based on the above observations. Here are three examples:

  1. What potential sources of conflict (external and internal) do you infer from the title and/or blurb? What might be the underlying causes of these conflicts?
  2. What appears to be personally at stake for the protagonist or listed characters? What might they have to fight for as a result of the external plot?
  3. Does the title tie in with aspects of the blurb? If so, what words, phrases, or ideas helped create this connection?

An Example of Identifying Themes Using the Title and the Blurb

Let’s practice this together using Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See. We’ll review the blurb, then answer the questions listed above.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Wow. No shortage of conflict here, so we’ll find plenty of answers to Question #1. With World War II driving All The Light We Cannot See, warfare and its impact on society will be a central theme. I’d also say courage, since both children will encounter difficult situations during the story; wisdom / knowledge, since the intelligence of both characters is highlighted; and secrets / deception, since Marie-Laure and her father may go to great lengths to hide that dangerous jewel – as well as themselves.

How about Question #2? What seems to be at stake for Marie-Laure and Werner? Family is a given; the blurb mentions Marie-Laure’s father and Werner’s sister, and war always affects the people whom a POV character loves. Also, Marie-Laure’s individual story could be an example of perseverance. She’ll endure blindness at a young age, and then a complete uprooting of her life to escape the war and hide the jewel. As for Werner, the blurb hints at his struggle to comprehend warfare and his role in the ordeal. Compassion and morality could therefore be integral themes in his sections.

Finally, for Question #3, how does the title All The Light We Cannot See tie in with the blurb? The “invisible” light Doerr refers to here is most likely symbolic, so what could it symbolize? Hope is a strong possibility theme-wise. Both Marie-Laure and Werner could be beacons of hope, based on what we’ve inferred so far. Light could also represent goodness, which relates to Werner’s theme of compassion; and innocence, which both children could lose as a result of the war.

How about you? What observations did you make while answering Questions #1 through #3? The themes highlighted above might only be a sampling of what All The Light We Cannot See will offer, so chances are you might find other potential themes that weren’t discussed.

So, Can We Use This Exercise for All Novels?

Unfortunately, no. Depending on the chosen title and how the blurb is written, sometimes it’s a challenge to glean possible themes from them. That’s why we’ll look at other methods as Theme: A Story’s Soul continues.

Next time, however, we’ll bring you our first case study on theme: the concept of trust, and how it’s delivered in a classic YA historical fiction novel and a recently published urban fantasy. Check back here for that article on Monday, February 2!

It’s Your Turn!

  • Try answering Questions #1 through #3 with books you haven’t read from your collection. What possible themes do the title and the blurb reveal? When you read those books, pay attention to themes as they emerge. Did you guess correctly?
  • If you’re writing a story, practice the above exercise with your current WIP by drafting the blurb. What potential themes do you notice? Do they seem accurate, based on what you know about your story?

What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #AStorysSoul.


Sara LetourneaSara Letourneau 1 croppedu is a Massachusetts-based writer who practices joy and versatility in her work. In addition to writing a fantasy novel, she reviews tea at A Bibliophile’s Reverie and is a guest contributor for Grub Street Daily. She’s also a published poet whose works have appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two anthologies. Learn more about Sara at her personal blogFacebook, and Twitter.

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