How to Find Your Story’s Theme
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
February 2019
Contributor
Written by
She Writes
February 2019

There is a difference between good stories and great ones. Fully developed characters, pacing and conflict can all add up to an intriguing read. The thing that will set your story apart though – whether you’re writing fiction or memoir – is theme.

Theme is a slippery little concept though. For most writers, theme isn’t the first thing to pop into your head. For many, theme may not occur to them until after they’ve written thousands of words, if it ever does.

The thing about theme though is it can set apart an entertaining read from an unforgettable book. So whether you’re at the start of a project or right in the middle, explore some of the elements that will help you find your theme and use it to make your story great.

What is a theme?

The theme is an overarching statement that encompasses the big “why” for writing this particular story.

It’s the idea that most significantly impacts your character and their decision-making process.

There may not be just one theme, but you should be able to hone in on the main statement that speaks to your story.

What a theme isn’t:

It doesn’t have to be a moral or a lesson.

It isn’t the “what if” question that lead you to crafting this story.

It’s not the summary of your book in one sentence.

How to find your story’s theme?

For starters, you can look at your book in terms of major ideas and concepts. These are the big global elements. Any given story would probably have at least half a dozen.

It’s important to understand these as well as you are working to establish the all-encompassing thematic statement about your work.

Here are a few of these explored in major bestsellers.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

  • Marriage
  • Motherhood
  • Politics
  • Femininity
  • Love
  • Identity

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

  • Racism
  • Identity
  • Power
  • Poverty
  • Crime

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

  • Revenge
  • Identity
  • Marriage
  • Femininity
  • Masculinity
  • Deceit

As you can see, understanding these broad topics is important because they are concepts that a great story will return to again and again, exploring and answering and questioning the traditional expectations around those ideas.

These are good mile markers, but they aren’t going to get your character all the way to their destination. As you can see, three very different stories can have overlap. So finding your statement is what will set you apart.

There are millions of stories about marriage and love and politics and identity. Those major concepts add flavor and intrigue to a story but aren’t enough to shape the trajectory of the main character.

Developing Your Story’s Thematic Statement

Once you have an idea of the general themes your story addresses it’s time to construct a single statement that captures your book’s purpose.

This can usually be done by identifying your main character’s flaws, limiting beliefs and inherent faults.

Your story should be following your character’s arc which in short involves them transforming from a person who believes one thing to a person who has to overcome that belief in order to achieve something greater.

And therein lies your theme.

These can be broad and still serve as an important roadmap. For example:

  • Love conquers all.
  • Money is the root of all evil.
  • Home is where the heart is.

A really strong theme though will strive to be unique. The more distinct your theme is the more original your story will feel.

For example:

  • There is no limit to what a mother will do to save her child.
  • The only way to succeed is to be number one.
  • No one can rise without sacrifice.

By focusing in on what your character believes and what they’ll have to overcome to get what they need, you can find your theme. And in doing so, you’ll apply this concept to scenes and dialogue and action that will give your book a cohesiveness it may not otherwise be able to achieve.

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