Coming up with your story’s theme

Theme is another one of those tricky high school literature subjects. Some writers will tell you there’s no such thing as theme in a good story, that it’s something teachers assign students as busywork. Or they’ll say that if you try to write a story around a theme, it becomes forced and preachy.

And sometimes that’s true.

However, it doesn’t hurt to explore your story’s deeper meaning and try to give some emphasis to it as you go.

What is theme?

Your story’s theme is its underlying meaning, and it’s often something that can be summed up in just one or two words–faith, family, love. Most books have one, whether the author realizes it or not; it’s often an unconscious bias we include because of patterns we experience in our lives. It’s something so normal to us that we often don’t notice it until someone else points it out.

How do you identify your story’s theme?

This might depend on your writing style. For me it happens when I’m editing, and I look over my story and discover patterns of behavior, or certain emotional beats that I return to multiple times.

I’m still in the early stages of editing my current novel, but right now I’d guess that my theme is exploitation. A lot of plot events revolve around how people in power take advantage of the vulnerable.

If you had asked me about my story’s theme in my early stages, I might have said it was about women’s rights. Although women’s rights can certainly fall under exploitation, it’s not the whole picture and I couldn’t see that until recently.

Why does it matter?

Honestly, I think it’s subjective and it’s going to depend on the story, the writer, and the target audience. A theme can make a story feel deeper, but maybe you’re writing a story that doesn’t need much depth. Or maybe your ideal reader wouldn’t recognize or appreciate depth if you smacked them over the head with it.

Does your story have a theme?

Do you want it to have one? I feel like expanding on my novel’s theme is going to give the story an extra level of detail, but it should be subtle enough that readers won’t feel like I’m preaching at them. What do you think? Please feel free to share your opinion in a comment. As always, use those social media buttons down below to share this with your writer friends. Thanks!

Image Credit: Emma Matthews Digital Content Production

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  1. I tend to recognize underlying themes as I’m writing, when a bunch of seemingly disparate ideas suddenly begin coming together. It sometimes feels like a happy accident. Those are the best kinds, because if I try to deliberately insert something, I start to sound preachy lol

    1. I have a hard time being certain about theme while I’m writing a rough draft. It’s something I’m more likely to spot when I read over the story again. I think it’s better for them to show up organically than to try and insert a theme on purpose, for exactly that reason: I don’t want it to sound forced or preachy.

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