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Tips for Choosing the Perfect Theme for Your Story

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Every good story has a plot and every good plot needs a theme.

The story is a series of events.

The plot is a structure that the storyteller uses to show how the events are connected.

The theme is the central message behind the story.

To tell the best story possible, you need both a plot and a theme. But here’s the thing: Themes cannot be spelled out. Instead, you’ll need to leave a trail of breadcrumbs to help the reader figure out the story’s theme. Confused? Let’s talk about it.

Theme Defined

It can be easy to mistake your story’s plot with its theme. After all, they’re both used to understand the story.

Here’s how they differ:

When someone asks you what your story is about, you may answer in one of two ways. The first way is to share exactly what happens in your story by describing the events and the characters. (Ex. “It’s a story about a child who loses their mother because of drug addiction.”) That’s the plot. The second way is to share the big-picture meaning behind your story. (Ex. “It’s a story about love conquering hate.”) That’s the theme.

While the plot tells exactly what happens in the story, the theme explains why. It gives meaning to the story. Without a theme, your story is a recording of actions but it doesn’t explain why these actions happen beyond simple cause and effect.

The “why” is important for your reader.

The human mind is always searching for meaning. We love stories because they provide answers about the human condition. Stories help us understand life, ourselves, and each other. But this doesn’t happen accidentally. A storyteller must be intentional. A story’s theme is the author’s statement about the human condition.

It’s not just a topic, but it’s also the author’s treatment on and opinion on the topic. For example, it’s not just about honesty. It’s about the importance of being one’s authentic self.

Two authors can take the same raw material (the story) and re-arrange the material to express their thematic statements. For example, by shifting the narrative point of view from the protagonist to the villain, you can have the same story material but come away with a different perspective and a completely different theme. A story must be told in a specific and deliberate way to amplify its theme.

If you don’t have a theme, your story will seem empty and meaningless because, well, it is.

Here’s another reason why you need a theme in your story:

Knowing your theme will help you write a better story. Use your intended theme as a guide to what you should and should not share in the story. For example, if your story is about faith vs. doubt, make sure that every major event in your story ties back to this theme.

How to Discover Your Story's Theme

Now that we’ve discussed what a theme is, let’s discuss how to discover the theme in your story.

Figure Out Your Why

Choosing a Theme

Why are you telling this specific story in this specific way in the first place? What message would you like to convey to your dear reader? What stance are you taking and why?

Getting clear about your reason for writing the story will help you understand your intentions.

Often, it takes some digging. When we first sit down to write a story, we don’t always ask these questions. We just think, “Cool story, bro. Let’s get to writing.” Definitely do that. But then, after getting your first draft down, start thinking about the deeper meaning behind the story. Ask what this story says about life or being human.

Consider Your Story’s Genre

Each literary genre has its own set of common themes. Here are a few examples:

  • Crime - Good vs. evil
  • Dystopian - Loss of individualism
  • Epic/ Adventure - Self-reliance
  • Romance - Love and sacrifice
  • Science Fiction - Conflict with technology
  • Saga - Circle of life
  • Young Adult - Coming of age, desire to escape

When choosing a theme for your story, always refer to your genre first. Your reader will expect a familiar theme based on the genre of your story. If you don’t deliver, you may disappoint the reader. For example, I wouldn’t expect the main theme of a romance novel to be about the corruption of power. While that could work as a secondary theme, the main theme should be something that the reader anticipates because of your story’s genre.

Create an Outline

Choosing a Theme

It’s never too late to outline.

I know that some writers hate outlining. So, here’s my advice. If you’re a pantser and hate outlining before churning out your first draft— Don’t. Instead, outline after writing your first draft.

I highly recommend outlining (even if it’s a bare-bones outline) before starting your second draft. This allows you to attack your writing with a greater sense of direction. This gives you a chance to see how you can arrange events to highlight your big picture.

Use Motifs

Let’s talk a little bit about motifs.

Themes work hand in hand with motifs. But, what the heck is a motif?

A motif is a symbol, action, image, or word that repeats itself throughout a story.

At first glance, motif and theme seem to be similar. Both have a symbolic meaning. However, motifs are concrete and can be experienced by the senses. A motif is seen, heard, or felt. A story's theme is always abstract. It's the observation that the reader makes when presented with all of the events in the story. The theme is never spelled out, while the motif is always described.

Motifs are used to uncover the story's theme. When done correctly, the recurring elements in your story will connect together to reveal the big picture.

Still confused? Here’s an example to help you understand the role that motifs play in a story:

In Cormac McCarthy's No Country for Old Men, one of the strongest themes is the question of fate vs free will. The author suggests that there's an element of chance in life. He emphasizes this theme with the motif of a coin toss. Throughout the novel, the villain uses a coin toss to determine one's fate. While the victim has the free will to choose which side to bet on, their fate is up to chance.

This is one example of how a recurring element (motif) reinforces the main theme of a story.

The good thing about motifs is that you can add them after the fact. After figuring out why you wrote the story, you can insert motifs to further emphasize your thematic statement.

Use Multiple Themes

You’re not bound to just one theme in your story. Stories can have many themes.

While you’ll likely have just one major theme coursing through your story, you can have many minor themes that act as support. These minor themes can strengthen your main theme and add more depth to your story. Give your reader more things to consider by serving up multiple themes.

A story's theme is not just a topic, but it’s also the author’s opinion on the topic.

Use Characterization to Develop Theme

As the characters develop, so does the story’s main theme. The characters’ actions, what they say, what they see, and what they experience will all feed into the story’s big picture. If your theme is a statement on the inevitability of death, make sure that your characters experience it on a regular basis. Perhaps they see the death of an animal, or they nurse a dying plant.

The story’s theme should also be evident in the impact of your character’s actions. Your theme is in the characters’ consequences. How your characters cause or react to the events in your plot will allow you to explore different sides of your theme. For example, going back to the earlier example of death, you can have one character die while another is left to make sense of that death and their own upcoming death.

You can explore all of the nuances of your theme through your main characters.

Take a Breather

Sometimes, it’s hard to see the big picture when you’re in the thick of it. After writing your first draft, take a break. Then, after a few days (or weeks), come back to your story with fresh eyes and read through it. This will allow you to see the organic theme(s) in your story that you may not have been conscious of while writing.

Final Thoughts

Even though your reader wants to be entertained, they also want to understand the deeper meaning of the human condition. A story's theme shares a glimpse into life’s great truths. However, it doesn’t come together by mistake. Use the above tips to figure out how to create a strong theme for your story.

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