5 Tips for Choosing a Great Story Theme

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Where do themes come from? How do authors link all the various, moving parts of their stories to create a single, lasting impression? Is it a holy secret bestowed only on the worthy? Is it magic? It’s actually just another part of writing. Like any other skill in a writer’s knapsack, figuring out themes takes time, patience, and lots of practice. That doesn’t mean you’re all alone, though. These five tips can help you riddle out the theme of even the most stubborn story.

Pick Your Theme after Finishing Your First Draft

If you’re halfway through your novel’s first draft and you still don’t know what your theme is, don’t worry. You don’t really need to think about your theme at all until you’re ready to start editing. Forcing a story to conform to a particular theme when it organically moves in another direction is a great way to stymie creativity and miss out on surprising storylines. Evoking themes is an editing task, so let your story come together before you go looking for overarching values, ideas, or arguments.

Use Your Characters to Build a Theme

Pay close attention to your characters’ motives and desires. Their drive will play a large part in the story’s theme. When characters spend the entire story fighting over a throne, then chances are your theme will have something to do with the nature of power. From there, figure out how fulfilling goals changes your cast. Are the things they pursued worthwhile? Why or why not? These kinds of discussions will help you figure out how to tie together what you’ve written.

Look for Reoccurring Elements

A theme may become clear in one pivotal scene, but multiple lines, incidents, and motives throughout the story should echo this revelation. When you’re developing your theme, look through your story to discover what’s already there. Repetition is the simplest way to reveal a story’s primary direction. Remember, themes appear through a story’s conflict as well. Discussions about crowds, intense scenes with solitary characters, and other striking dichotomies can inform your view. Look for warring attributes and opposites.

Go the Indirect Route

It’s easy to think of a theme as a grand moral or social commentary. That isn’t always the case, though. Many stories possess nuanced, heavily aesthetic themes, and they work just as well as stories with clear moral lessons. If you’re floundering in your search for a theme, stop looking for clear-cut answers. Relax, reread your work, and give yourself time to linger over your most vivid descriptions, engaging discussions, and character commentaries. Your themes may be hidden in colors, moods, or settings. Consider how you feel after you read and try to trace those emotions back to particular imagery or dialogue. Even your prose style may influence your theme. Quick, choppy text evokes rapid-fire thoughts, speed, and stress. Long sentences that spin out to fill multiple lines will leave you feeling full and thoughtful.

Consider the Questions that Drive You to Write

Every story begins with a question. What if the smallest, weakest character is given the burden of a grand quest? What if all books were banned? The questions themselves will inform your theme just as much as the answers. These kinds of discussions make for great beta reader conversations. Getting an outside opinion on your work may also help you shape a better, more fitting theme.

If you haven’t finished your first draft, bookmark this article and come back later. Build your story before you decide what it’s trying to tell you. Trust that theme is there. You’ll have plenty of time to discover it along the way.


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