Two novels published in 2016, The Teacher’s Secret by Suzanne Leal and Promise by Sarah Armstrong, share the same dominant theme of child safety, although they approach it from very different perspectives. Both these novels provide a template for your learning about writing with a strong theme.

The Teacher's Secret                                                                        Promise Sarah Armstrong

photo courtesy of Allen&Unwin                                                               photo courtesy of PanMacMillan

Both novels are also fantastic reads. I read each within two days, pinned to the edge of my seat. Perhaps I am overly sentimental, but both novels’ last pages brought me to tears. Both are strongly recommended, whether you are a writer or not.

But now to writing with a strong theme.

Theme is a crucial aspect of good writing

Theme is a crucial aspect of good writing. That applies equally to novels, short stories, memoir and other non-fiction. Your theme is the answer to the question you may be asked by friends and a potential publisher, ‘What is your book/short story about?’ Theme shows that there is a point to your writing. Theme provides a unifying focus for your story.

In my recent blogpost Memoir, Social History, and Autobiography: What are the Differences? I wrote about the significance of focus in memoir, gave some examples of memoirs with a strong focus, and explained why my favourite memoirs are Boy, Lost by Kristina Olsson and Missing Christopher by Jayne Newling. The first two reasons I gave are:

  1. Olsson and Newling focus on a fundamental turning point in their respective lives – which becomes the all-encompassing theme of each of their books.
  2. Such fundamental turning points and thus themes tend to relate to universal ideas or the life experiences of many other people. In Kristina Olsson’s memoir Boy, Lost, that theme is domestic violence and its long-lasting effects on the children of both the abused and the abuser. In Jayne Newling’s memoir Missing Christopher, that theme is youth suicide and its devastating impact on the parents and siblings of the youth.

As I said in that blogpost, themes tend to relate to universal ideas – or values – about the human condition and society. Examples include love, family, justice, the class system, and racial equality.

Let’s have a closer look at the recent novels Promise by Sarah Armstrong and The Teacher’s Secret by Suzanne Leal. Both authors have a dominant theme: the fundamental value of child safety, but that there are failings in the child protection system. Both link their theme tightly with their inciting incident and their characters’ motivations respectively.

Inciting incident

In Promise by Sarah Armstrong the inciting incident to the novel and its theme of child safety is a new family moving into the house next door to protagonist Anna. It only takes a couple of days until Anna suspects that her new neighbours’ young child is at risk. The incidents of violence against the child that she observes and the injuries the child sustains are ongoing. She notifies the child protection office several times, but each time they send the police instead, which aggravates the danger to the child.

In The Teacher’s Secret by Suzanne Leal the inciting incident to the novel and its predominant theme of of child safety and the failings of the child protection system is the appointment of a new Acting Principal to the primary school in the small community where the novel is set. Not only does she embody the new bureaucratic approach to education, but also is she the former head of the Child Protection Unit within the school system.

Characters’ motivations

All human beings have motivations for their actions, even if they may not always be conscious of them. Equally, the characters in your writing must have motivations for their actions. And these motivations should be linked to the theme of your writing.

Just as Sarah Armstrong in her novel Promise tightly focuses on her theme of child safety, the motivation of her protagonist Anna focuses at all times on ensuring the safety of her neighbours’ young child. To do so, she takes drastic steps, which put her own safety at risk and endanger her relationships with her boyfriend, her father, and a close friend.

Suzanne Leal in her novel The Teacher’s Secret has several themes, but the predominant theme is child safety and failings of the child protection system. Leal comes to it from another angle altogether, however, focusing on a child protection system that may be overly suspicious and overreact rather than underreact as in Sarah Armstrong’s novel.

The new Acting Principal sees child abuse every time the protagonist, assistant principal Terry, touches one of the children. In contrast the reader gains the impression that Terry is the one who truly has the children’s safety and welfare at heart.

Both authors are also adept at creating suspense for the reader.


Suspense is one of the prime movers to keep readers turn the pages. Both Leal and Armstrong create strong suspense. In Armstrong’s novel Promise the suspense carries through the entire book: will Anna manage to keep the child – and herself – safe from danger? Similarly, Leal creates suspense through the entire novel, interestingly with the choice of title for her novel: The Teacher’s Secret. Is the reader’s sense that Terry is the one who truly has the children’s safety and welfare at heart correct – or what is his secret?


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