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.
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)
- Observe what the characters in a story say and do.
- Ask yourself what were the consequences of those actions.
How to describe theme (simple version)
- Themes are a complete sentence.
- Themes never contain character names.
- 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?
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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.