Thinking About (Story) Themes

March 7, 2021

I'll preface this post by saying that if you write straight-up action or pure fluff because that's what you enjoy writing, you can probably skip this week's lesson. 

Still here? Great, then let's look at theme from a fresh perspective. We'll start at the beginning.

Themes. They're core building blocks of nearly every story, but they're also the hardest to pinpoint or wrap your head around.  

Think back to your school days. Remember when you were taught to look for the "main idea" of a story? More likely than not, the lesson's example was some type of in-your-face, moralistic story that wasn't fun to read because it was too busy teaching you a lesson. It's easy to pick out a story's theme when it's rolled out on a red carpet or dropped on you like a bag of bricks.  This teaching technique has left generations of writers believing that theme must argue a perspective, enforce a belief system or tell the reader what to think. 

Theme is taught this way with good intentions because these sorts of heavy-handed examples are easy to recognize. Unfortunately, the practice tends to alienate young and aspiring writers, nudging them toward superficiality because they don't realize their stories can be both meaningful and fun at the same time. 

I assure you, this isn't the case. It is entirely possible to write deep, meaningful AND fun stories without all the heavily moralizing of a fable or heavy-handed lesson.

Simply put, a theme is any unifying idea your story that ties your story together. It's the story within your story, a set of ideas that are broader than the plot but that still drive the action and your characters' motivations. Themes help define the characters themselves, They may also add depth to your worldbuilding efforts, creating a world or environment that itself provides meaningful commentary without distracting from the action or the weighing your story down. 

Have you ever written a story where the good guys are also flawed and morally grey? Congrats! That's a theme. Have you created a world where your main character is given a role she doesn't like by society? Yep, that's also a theme!

And while "people are complicated" or "societal expectations should be challenged" are themes in and of themselves, they need to be integrated throughout your plot to become a formal theme in your story. Having the idea appear once isn't enough, it needs to permeate the things your characters do and the forces that oppose them. Themes elevate your story into something more substantial than a simple series of events strung together to form a plot. Themes enrich your story and make it more memorable, too.

Activity

The stories around you have more themes than you probably realize. After all, they're a big part of what makes a story interesting. Pick your favourite movie or novel or TV show. What is it about? Describe the story without touching on the specific events in the plot. 

Need help? Try thinking about the characters and their journey. What do we learn about life or human nature by watching their story unfold?