Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 18, 2019

Finding Your Story's Theme

Jenny Hansen

A few years back, I wrote a post called How To Focus on Your Story's DNA that identified the elements of story that never change. I use those unchanging elements to help keep my story on track. Theme is one of those important elements, and it's a tough one because most of the writers I talk to don't how to articulate their story's theme. Or they learn it as they write, which is a huge leap of faith.

What is a story theme?

Theme is the "big idea." The underlying message, or the critical belief about life the author is trying to convey. This belief, or idea, is universal. It transcends all barriers (i.e., age, culture or religion).

For myself, I like to simplify "the big idea" to a few quick words. Examples: There's no place like home, shame blocks happiness, control is illusion.

Theme as an iceberg

Reedsy made a cool graphic in their post, What Is the Theme of Your Story?Inspired by Ernest Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, they created a diagram that illustrates the relationship between the theme of a book, its story, and the plot.

  • Plot: the events of the narrative
  • Story: internal and external character conflicts
  • Theme: drives both plots and story from beneath the surface

"Like the portions of an iceberg beneath the surface, theme may not be immediately apparent to the reader — but it is implicitly conveyed through the writer's craft, using story, character conflict, and symbolism."

Writing around a theme

John August, the creator of Charlie's Angels and Big Fish penned a great post about Writing From Theme, which I've excerpted in blue below.

Note: This post demonstrated his level of awesome to me. I write to theme, once I know what it is. This guy writes from theme...as in he figures it out in advance and builds a whole story around it. There are always great lessons to learn from the awesome people.

I suspect what your pro-theme writer friends were talking about was some essence that permeates every moment of a good film. Something that’s in its DNA. You feel it when it’s there, and notice it when it’s missing — even when the script otherwise seems solid.

Think back to one of your favorite movies. Chances are, you could pick any moment in it, and it would “feel like” the movie. That is, you could take that little slice of it, plant it in some cinematic soil, and it would grow into something resembling the original.

My favorite movie is Aliens, and it meets this test easily. Pull out any sequence — even before Ripley has agreed to join the mission — and it would grow into a story that fits its universe.

I don’t know that “theme” is really the best word for this DNA quality I’m describing. But I think it’s what we mean when we say it.

Theme as the essential idea

For Big Fish: I had a lot of conversations about “what it was about.” Not the plot, really, but what the point of it all was. I talked about the difference between what is true and what is real. I don’t know that I ever articulated it quite that way, but this was definitely the underlying idea that informed every moment and every character in the script.

And for most of my projects, I can point to the DNA ideas:

  • Charlie’s Angels: Three princesses must save their father, the King.
  • The Remnants: The end of the world isn’t so bad.
  • The Variant: You are still your younger self.
  • Go: You cross a line, then your only way out is to accelerate.

For [some] projects, I remember saying these things aloud before I started writing. For others, I probably didn’t. But I could definitely feel the edges of their core ideas before I put pen to paper. I won’t start writing until I know it.

When you really understand a project’s DNA, it’s much easier to write and rewrite. You know exactly what types of scenes, moments and lines of dialogue belong in your movie, and which don’t.

Every scene in your screenplay can change, but it still feels like the movie.

Simplifying theme

John August's magic did not help me explain theme to my nine year-old and her 4th grade class. The video below did it for me, in a way that was easy for them to understand.

To summarize: Theme is the lesson the author wants you to get from the story. Themes tell us what we should or should not do to ensure happiness and success in our own lives.

How to discover theme (simple version)

  1. Observe what the characters in a story say and do.
  2. Ask yourself what were the consequences of those actions.

How to describe theme (simple version)

  1. Themes are a complete sentence.
  2. Themes never contain character names.
  3. A theme is true for everyone — young or old, rich or poor.

Theme help for pantsers

Laura Drake would not forgive me if I left this part out. Many pantsers have no idea what the theme is until they are done with the first draft. That is their discovery draft, when they find out all the magic that lurks below the story they were compelled to write.

That's okay, pantsers. You can put the magic into the second draft. Your theme will still be there, waiting to be defined and refined by you. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither is your story. You'll nail theme in the editing process.

Do you know your story's theme from the beginning, or learn it as you go along? Do your themes surprise you? Do you have themes you write about over and over again?

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 20+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell, Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or here at Writers In The Storm.

43 comments on “Finding Your Story's Theme”

  1. I don't consciously start with a theme, but sometimes I thinks I'm writing the same book over and over. Character must discover and believe in him/herself. Heck, my first book was called "Finding Sarah." My taglines include things like:
    The trouble with running away is that you take yourself with you.
    There’s no escaping your past, no matter how deep you try to bury it.
    She says she doesn't need protection. He knows better. And for him, it's personal.
    Heroes aren’t fearless. They just don’t let fear get in the way.
    Not following orders might cost him his dream job, but it could save her life.
    She trusts everyone. He trusts no one.
    What do you do when your life turns upside down? Whatever it takes.
    Running for the wrong reason can still get you killed.

    1. I love your taglines, Terry! You're good at those. 🙂

      Laura and I have talked about this. Many of us use the same theme over and over. I think it's because it's usually an issue we're still working out for ourselves.

  2. My husband (my beta reader) is always harping on theme. In the book I just sent to my editor, the theme is obvious. Independence is good, but accepting help from your friends is better. A character tells my heroine this fairly early in the book, but it takes her quite a while to accept it (which is shown through her actions). This post was such a good reminder. Thank you.

    1. Don't you love it when the theme is obvious? It's so much harder when I have to work for it and layer it in. Readers love books where they can easily see it as well.

      You are smart to have your husband beta read. If he's like mine, he catches EVERYTHING. I often read or theme in other people's books (I can't do it as well for my own). I look for the theme and find places where the author can punch it up.

  3. Wonderful post, Jenny. The theme as an iceberg is a great analogy. It was really interesting to hear what the story seeds of John August were.

    The fascinating fact is that every reader reads a different book. Each reader will interpret your story through their own worldview and experiences, and can sometimes even come to a completely opposite conclusion of what you wanted to say.

    As for my own writing, I have some inkling of an idea of what the theme could be from the beginning but sometimes the turn of events and the characters surprise me, and might spawn a new layer of the theme, or a different metaphor for it.

    1. Thanks, Reetta! You should click the John August link to see the rest of his theme list - there were at least 5 more than what I included. His post was super thought-provoking for me. So is your comment because it is so true - people get what they need from a story, whether it is what the author intended to convey or not!

      p.s. I have missed you!

  4. I liked this post very much. It was only until I did final edits on my latest book soon to be released that I saw the theme of it. And then as I edited I was really astounded at the way it was always there like that iceberg you mentioned.

  5. I start with the theme. From Day One. Then I draft the tagline and blurb. Then I draft the outline. I like to have a roadmap in front of me so I know whether I'm heading to Portland or Paris or Poughkeepsie. That said, I love a good detour...and the destination may ultimately change. But the theme is my compass on the journey.

    Great post, by the way, Jenny. That video is a priceless teachable moment.

    1. See? You're one of the "awesome people!" (I never doubted it.)

      I cannot imagine doing the theme and the logline first. I am absolutely in awe of that kind of project. My synopsis, logline, queries, pitches all kind of suck until I'm through the first draft of the story. But the theme...thankfully I can usually get to that by the time I'm 3-4 chapters in.

    2. I never plan theme - it develops as I write. Except one book. Days Made of Glass, the book I wrote for my sister. The themes were, accepting help doesn't mean abdicating responsibility, and when you love hardest, at some point to have to let go and trust.

      Themes in my life as well (as you know, Jenny).

  6. I thought my theme was Family isn't always blood. But now as I struggle to write the end i think it more in the lines of Be happy with where you are. So, is it possible to have more than one theme? I loved this post.

    1. I think you can have many themes, Alice, especially if they tie together. If you watch that darling video, they pull 3-4 themes out of Cinderella. (The narrator of that video cracked me up.)

  7. Great post, Jenny. As a total pantser (right there with you, Laura), I didn't really know what the theme of my first book was until I was deep in the story. It turned out the theme was be yourself, not what others expect of you (belief in yourself). The of the second book in the series was that your true family is the people who are there for you no matter what (belief in others. The theme of the third (getting close to done) asks the question, "What do you believe in?" (belief in a high power).

    When I created this character, I did it for pure entertainment--no big lessons, just an escape from the real world into one of my own making. Turns out, whether we like it or not, we tend pull pieces of our real world into our fantasies, and those often become our themes.

    1. Ooooooh...I really like the progression through the series, Bob. How you started with self, then progressively opened the character and their world deeper and deeper as the books go on. Are you proud of yourself? Cuz I'm proud of you!

      1. I was at an event talking to someone, explaining my book, and during the conversation, I had a revelation about the whole book and it opened up: trope to theme.

        Probably works more in romance than some other genres.

  8. I had no idea I had a theme when I wrote the first draft of my first manuscript. But I did. It took my editor's keen eyes and brain to whittle out part of it, and as I revised the story, my theme emerged: "When war tears life apart, saving family is the only thing that matters." And it worked.

      1. Yes, exactly. But for my WIP I now have a better idea of the theme as I'm working on the first draft, and it sure helps me keep the book focused.

  9. Love this post, Jenny! I've been NaNoWriMo prepping my new urban fantasy and this got me thinking about my theme. I believe it's something like "you have to be willing to give up a piece of yourself for true love." Kind of like the Gift of the Magi. Will be keeping my eye on theme when I write my first draft.

    1. Writing to a theme is a great way to guide yourself through NaNo. I love that idea! And you are getting my wheels turning for another post... (thank you!)

  10. Writing from theme - and oh, dear, it's so hard to find that before you start -- allows you the writer to hone the scenes and emphasize only those things that refine the theme. It gives another dimension of unity to your story. It can drive the final realization or sharing between the hero and heroine.
    Great post, Jenny. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I 100% agree, Susan. And it is SO HARD. Good for you, if you can do it. I can do it after I've been with the story for a bit, but not before I begin. (So far!)

  11. Thanks, Jenny! The idea of the theme equating to the DNA idea of the story really hit home with me. All the explanations I have heard before i conferences kinda gloss my eyes over. But this hits home to the real crux of what makes the theme and I think it will make it much easier to grasp what mine are earlier on so I can write with that DNA in mind.

    1. I'll bet as a medical professional, story DNA is more tangible to you than a lot of other ways to put it. I'm a nurse's daughter so it was for me too. There are so many intangibles with writing that focusing on the tangibles really smooths it out for me.

      Laura commented above that her brain likes to be lost. (She also likes to jump out of planes, so I think it's just in her wiring.) I HATE to be lost. I don't mind not knowing exactly where I'm going, but I do not like to be lost. And while I don't want to outline a plot, I do want a map and some guideposts. For me, the story's DNA elements, including theme, provide that map.

  12. I find that I am a "pantster" and have gradually found my theme. And it was a surprise to me. I definitely wouldn't have planned it.

  13. The main theme of all my books (so far) is "Love conquers all." Yes, there are other (more personal) themes running through each book, too.

  14. Love your explanations Jenny! My co-author and I have talked about theme plenty with our co-written Muse Island series. We want to make sure that each book forces our main character, and others, to learn a new lesson about herself and life. Never in a way that hits the reader over the head, but in a way that guides our story choices.

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