Writing Out Loud

How To Find Your Story Theme

photo of a key

The key to writing a memorable story is having a strong story theme.

Not having a Story Theme Makes For a ‘So What?’ Story

Too many stories with glowing potential fail to deliver what they promise. Why is that?

You’ve got the coolest idea for a story. It’s filled with clever word play, intriguing gadgets, amazing magical twists and built in a stunning world that you’re sure is totally original and unique.

Your imagination is buzzing with the sheer brilliance of it, and you can’t wait to get it out there, totally convinced that the whole world will be stunned by your awesome creative powers.

And it flops. Nobody cares. What went wrong?

The Secret is Theme

Your startling ideas and original way with words will fall flat if you don’t build your story around a theme.

Back in my university days, one of my tutors told me not to put too much emphasis on theme.

At the time I thought he was wrong. Today, I know he was wrong.

I’ve bought countless books because the back blurb excited me, the narrative snippets I read inside the pages seemed alive, and the front cover drew me into the fictional world the author had created. But ultimately, the book disappointed.

So What is Story Theme?

It’s what your story is all about: it’s nothing to do with the plot or the events; it’s the grand idea, or universal truth, that your plot and events illustrate.

Example: Supposing, in your story, the heroine is stood up by the man of her dreams. She outwardly forgives him, but when they arrange a second date, she stands him up in return.

What’s going on here? The events are the two dates and the separate breaking of promises. But neither of these are the theme.

To find the theme you need to explore why both characters let each other down. What was the motivation for their actions, and what did they hope to achieve, in the long run, by acting like that?

Lets suppose she was motivated by revenge. Her motive was to teach him a lesson and make him experience the hurt and humiliation that she had felt.

Let’s suppose that his motivation was fear. He’s slightly afraid of women, and though he finds the woman attractive, his fear got the better of him and he bottled out on date night.

So far so good, but we still haven’t nailed the theme. We need to go deeper.

Why does she feel a need for revenge?

Why is he afraid of women?

Maybe she has inner feelings of inferiority. This can make her petty in her dealings with others. She can’t take criticism because this reinforces her inner sense of lack, so she lashes out, not from spite, but from a desperate need to validate herself and prove her worth.

Maybe he was bullied and belittled by his mother. He sees all women as threats to his manhood and finds avoidance the best way of dealing with the fear of again falling short of feminine approval.

Both these motivations stem from a dysfunctional upbringing, and both characters must find a way to conquer their inner demons before they have any chance of building a relationship.

The theme that will give these events meaning and depth for the reader is “overcoming childhood programming”. You might have a different way of expressing this idea, but the result is the same.

We’re all products of our upbringing. Everyone can identify with inner demons that took root in childhood. We all carry an inner child who remembers early slights and grievances, so this is a theme that will resonate with readers.

Weaving Theme into Story

The theme isn’t something you spell out, however. It must grow naturally from your characters and the ways in which their own actions cause them problems.

When you’re building characters, pay attention to why they’re doing what they’re doing. What drives them? When you understand what lies beneath surface motivations, you’re on track to write a deeper, more meaningful story.

Do you agree or disagree? Is theme important to you? Let me know in the comments.

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