The Big Message, What the novel is about.
Question: My biggest problem is trying to sum up what my book means. ideas, characters dialogue etc is never a problem but the overall take-home message I can never seem to get one. I have written a novel, my copy editor pointed this out and I knew this already. The book is still in my drawer a year since and I stil don't know what that book is trying to say but it has a good storyline. How do I achieve this?
This is a common problem in character-driven novels. It simply may mean you are a holistic-thinker; that is, someone who instinctively is comfortable juggling a wide range of issues but not so good at sorting them by size to determine the biggest issue. (Linear thinkers have the opposite problem: they can easily identify the biggest issue but tend to ignore a multitude of smaller issues, even though the multitude, added up, can be more important.)
The solution is usually to ask the right questions about your story. Once you know what your big message is and can state it clearly, you can revise your story to make sure it is expressed clearly for the reader.
One way to start is to look at the Story Problem, which is composed of two parts:
1) the Story Goal, which is what the characters are trying to achieve. The protagonist leads the effort to achieve this goal, but others will be involved or affected. Either they have a stake in the outcome or they want a similar outcome for themselves. (The antagonist will be against it.)
2) the Consequence, which is the negative result that will occur if the Goal is not achieved.
Sometimes, if you are not sure what the Goal is, it helps to ask yourself what the Consequence is. What would a bad ending, a failure, look like? The Goal
will be the opposite.
Now, the climax of the story is the event that is determines decisively whether the Goal will be achieved. And whether the main character achieves the Goal depends on his/her making the right decision - whether to stick with his tried and true approach, or to change and do something different.
So one way to summarize the message of a story is to say, "When faced with this type of Problem, making choice X will lead to (success or failure)."
That's a very "plot-based" type of message.
Another approach is to look at what values seem to be more valuable in the story. What values or beliefs are common in the story world? What values does the main character hold? What are the the impact character's values? What values do they both share?
Throughout the story, there may be incidents in which certain values help the characters, and other times where they are hindered by their values. Values usually come in opposing pairs (e.g. selfishness vs. generosity, faith vs doubt, inaction vs. proaction).
Your thematic message can be summarized as, "On balance, X (a certain value or set of values) is more beneficial than Y (the opposite value or set of values)."
Combining these two gives the classic format of a "premise" or a "moral of the story." Some examples of a premise would be...
"Pride goeth before a fall" (i.e. pride is the wrong choice in this type of situation).
"Honesty is the best policy" (i.e. telling the truth is the best way to handle this type of problem).
As you can see, premises state which values lead to success or failure. That is a simple way to state a message, and sometimes premises sound trite. But it is better to have a simple message clearly stated in a few words than a complex message that no one really grasps.