A theme is a declarative statement or a claim about the world. In its smallest form, it’s a sentence, but it might be as long as a paragraph for you to feel like you’ve properly expressed it. In other words, the theme is the idea and perspective you’re trying to prove in some sense with your story. You’re trying to share it with people and convince the reader.
Statistically, there are writers who only sometimes consciously think super intensely about the theme of stuff they are going to convey. They still write incredibly deep, engaging, and thought-provoking stories. Most writers need to develop a basic understanding of the theme, work on it, and think about it a little more. I will illustrate what I mean with an example of writing a theme successfully.
How to write a theme for a story? (With Examples)
There’s a lot of information on what not to do regarding the theme. We, as writers, tend to infuse our work with themes, even if we didn’t set out to do. For instance, Stephen King accidentally infused the motif of blood throughout Carrie, not meaning to equate Carrie’s transition from girlhood to womanhood with trauma and destruction. After his wife pointed out the repetition of blood in key scenes, he added it in the next draft to create a cohesive theme.
A primary theme is not the same thing as the moral of a story. A book’s moral is a lesson the author wishes to impart to their audience, which is why they’re more strongly present in children’s and young adult literature. However, a book’s theme is an idea the author hopes the audience will mine for deeper meaning.
Your whole story will reflect what you’re trying to say about your theme. It’ll save you a lot of time from trying to write many drafts and then come back to it and cut what doesn’t work and create new things. But if you know the theme, then you can create your characters because your character will be a reflection. Especially if your character as an arc will be a reflection of that theme.
So you know where your character is going to start and where your character is going to end. Then you can figure out your scenes and story in terms of all the stuff I’m talking about character, connection, and motivational stuff. Those are details that you can add later. I’m talking about the foundation of stories, which is what your story is about and how your character transforms to reflect the theme you’re trying to convey. Here are some tips that will help you to write a theme.
Feel your theme
Look at your theme, deciding what it is and how it matches up with what happens in your story and what it conveys. Is that the same as what you wanted it to convey?
Your theme should be close to your heart. It should matter to you. People are afraid to summarize their theme into a sentence or a paragraph. You can take a theme, paste it over a landscape picture, and post it on Instagram. It becomes a throwaway, but you can build a book or story around that same theme, which is totally different.
- You will take the readers on a journey through which they experience that theme.
They get to understand it fully and internalize it in this magical way, from reading it on a piece of paper or an Instagram post. Reading a theme or sentence on a piece of paper is not the same as experiencing a story’s whole journey. Those are two different things in a good story. A poor embryo is about something other than what happens in the story to the characters. There’s also a plot embryo happening inside the reader.
Make a correlation between theme and story
You need to know what you’re trying to help them see. It’s not only going to happen by chance. If it does, it rarely happens. Here’s an example of a story where everyone knows the theme. It’s a catchphrase, and people still want to experience that story. The existence of there being a T-shirt with the words with great power comes great responsibility doesn’t diminish the story of Peter Parker.
A Spider-Man reading with great power comes great responsibility on a T-shirt is not the same thing as following Peter’s journey through losing Uncle Ben, his grief, and learning to balance responsibility. That story is still maintained by its theme distilled into this sentence. To convey things with stories, you must first know what they are.
Note: Consider what you want to discuss and share with the world, and decide on a theme. Every subplot has its theme. Deciding on the story’s point is difficult, but it’s worth doing.
How to choose/find a theme?
Your take on that theme, voice, characters, and plot will make your story unique. There are countless stories of love wins and love triumphs. We don’t get tired of a love triumph theme, and those stories can seem as different as night and day to one another because of the characters and the authorial voice. So don’t worry so much that you don’t have a unique theme.
What was I trying to say in making those choices for my plot and characters? It’s one of the best questions you can ask to find your theme because you’re already doing all of that character and plot development. So it’s a matter of getting meta on yourself and watching your decisions and why you’re doing them. The other question that you can ask yourself is:
- What emotion do you want the readers to take away from the story?
- Do you want your readers to be hopeful, glad, and optimistic at the story’s end?
- Do you want them to feel sad?
- What do you want the reader to feel at the end of the scene/chapter?
If you want your reader to feel sad that they fought, you think family is essential. Some universal themes in the literature include love, death, and good versus evil.
So each of these universal themes we are looking at has a lot of nuances and potential subthemes. Or, it takes on that theme that you could go and use power, corruption, survival, courage, and heroism. As you write them down, you’ll get to brainstorm ideas for your plots and characters, but you’ll also find that some are weightier than others and that you have more to say about than others.
When you do that, those natural ones that are your most essential themes can very well emerge. Work through them to see which ones work for you and help inspire you in the themes you want to write. One helpful question is, Why do you want to tell this story? This is different than the lesson you want to read to take away the why is what made you want to tell this story.
Your theme is about survival. You’re writing it because you think survival can be challenging but doable. You can’t survive if you don’t find some other people to help you or whatever your lessons are. But ask yourself why you want to write this will help develop your theme.
Another question that can help you is asking what you think are the essential things in life and why. Some of these questions are about getting to know yourself better. When you know your values and beliefs, you’ll often find that those are exactly the things you’re writing into your stories.
You can also ask yourself the same question about virtues. What are the best virtuous traits a person can have, and why do you think they are? What do you think society devalues the most in virtues? There’s a gap often, and you’re trying to send a message about that in your writing.
An effective theme must weave through the entire story. You can always write a story with another theme. This story can’t share every piece of knowledge you’ve learned. So every new story, you get to think about a new theme. Stop shying away from looking your theme in the eye. Meet its gaze, stare it down, brainstorm, and hold it close to your chest.
Write it on a piece of paper and burn it in the moonlight. Let it remind you why you’re telling this story and why it’s essential. It’s something best done after you’ve completed your first draft. I recommend going back and weaving in elements of that theme throughout your story to make a stronger, more complex narrative.
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