Does the concept of “theme” confuse you? Does the idea of writing theme and developing it throughout your story send you into a spiraling mess of writer’s block or procrastination?
Writing theme in a story can feel cumbersome and intimidating, especially since a strong, universal theme can determine if you hold the attention of your story’s target readers.
But how can you develop a theme in your story without making it sound forced? Is there a simpler way to connecting scenes with big ideas? Or building themes from your story’s core message?
In this post, we will cover the definition of theme, and how understanding story arcs can simplify what you (and other writers) might misperceive as a complicated writing must.
I Remember When Writing a Theme Was Hard
I remember the days back in high school English class, when I dreaded writing essays on the themes in a book.
Most of the time I made something up or regurgitated researched ideas, like God watching over the characters in The Great Gatsby.
The failure of the American Dream in Death of a Salesman? You bet I droned on about that, pulling ideas from scholars without really questioning why I thought Happy might escape his father’s tragic fate.
I don’t share this because I like admitting how writing themes often injured my writing, but it’s the truth—it was also a battle I desperately needed to overcome if I wanted to become a successful writer.
But even as I developed my skills as a creative writer, the concept of writing themes continued to elude me. I overcomplicated the concept. More than not, I took what could be a simple strategy and made it into an impossible writing feat. This slowed my process, and injured my writing confidence.
I needed to figure out how to simplify what I found remarkably complicated.
A theme, after all, is too important for a story not to master, especially if I wanted to make my stories memorable ones.
Yet themes are also often abstract and vague, despite their ability to connect the biggest ideas together with perfect projection of what the story’s really about.
But here’s my secret:
Once I understood how I could use a story’s arc to identify a theme (or themes), I began to appreciate how a story’s meaning evolves from its themes, and how these consistent, big messages are what can connect readers across genres and time.
I also knew that I could make writing theme simple. This didn’t have to be hard!
I’d like to share the simple process I discovered for writing theme with you in this post.
What is a Theme? Definition and How It Betters a Story
A theme, at its core, is what the story is really about. But what does this concept really mean? And how can we use it to develop themes in our stories?
Knowing a theme’s definition will clarify any confusion.
Definition of Theme
A theme is an important idea or underlying message in a story that suggests the story’s meaning, and also reflects the rise and fall making a story arc.
Themes allow readers to connect with the characters learning the story’s lessons because themes, at their core, tell readers the what a book is about.
Unlike the controlling idea, which is the overarching message driving the main plotline, there can be multiple themes in a book. Although the amount of themes woven into a plot may vary, they are, at their core, universally tethered to the human condition, and it’s for this reason, their messages carry across genres and cultures.
Themes unfold when a character makes big decisions, which therefore determines how a plot develops and advances. Themes can suggest cautionary messages or positive ones, depending on the type of story being told.
This means that a theme is dependent on how a story rises and/or falls—i.e. when determining the theme, the story arc matters!
Additionally, a theme is an idea that recurs in a story. Since this is a major idea suggesting your story’s meaning, it’s often a message that you keep reminding your readers if you want them to really absorb and believe in it.
A theme is a message that says, “Hey, just so you remember, this is what I’m trying to tell you. I want you to read this story and remember this.”
You sprinkle this message throughout your story like seasoning on a dish, through description, through dialogue, and through tough choices.
Choosing Your Theme
Your theme doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be one sentence, a simple phrase, or just one word. In fact, the simpler and more straightforward the theme, the better.
Think of your theme as the one thing you want your readers to keep in the back of their minds during and after reading the story.
For example, pretend we are going to write a story about an old woman recounting the long life she’s lived. One theme in this story could be about the passage of time. And unlike controlling ideas, different readers might present different arguments on how the her choices say something that speaks to this thematic concept.
What’s conveyed in the story, in other words, will impact our impression about how we understand the story’s thematic message.
How You Can Convey Theme in Your Story
One way you can choose a theme for your story is by considering various ways to convey a message based on a one or multiple word concept you pick, like passage of time.
To do this, begin by identifying words relevant to your theme. In the example we’ve selected, many words tie to the concept of time, including:
Once you identify these words, weave them into your story. This is something that may feel difficult when you first draft your story, but can be done fairly easily in future drafts or during revisions.
Take a look at how we can weave this theme of passing time into our story by incorporating one or more of the objects or concepts brainstormed above.
Doris sat on the bench at the bus stop, her knee acting up again.
The shops down by Main Street had changed from what she remembered.
Old McLaren’s barbershop had become a trendy boutique, and the high school where her children attended were knocked down decades ago, and rebuilt twice since she graduated.
At the farthest side of town, a bike lane had been added to accommodate the increase in cyclers. Biking seemed to have made a comeback.
A once beloved leisure her body begged her to give up.
The city bus pulled up with a groan. The tired-looking driver popped the door and gestured to her.
“Come on now, I got a schedule to keep.”
Doris rose, wincing at her aching bones. She dragged herself onto the bus, where she chose a seat near the back window, where she could watch the city she no longer recognized flash in pieces.
This passage conveys what it wants to say, but something feels weak about it. It’s loose, like a series of thoughts and descriptions that has a central idea but not quite.
To change that, let’s review our theme-relevant words above and take another crack at it:
The rusty bench creaked as Doris put her weight on it. It needed a coat of paint badly, but the fast-paced city couldn’t be bothered to pause and refurbish every run-down bus stop. Shame. It certainly had time to take down and replace all her old favorites, Doris thought.
Fast moving people always have a way of missing the important things.
Like Old McLaren’s barbershop. The small building, once filled with laughter, had become a trendy boutique last fall, and the high school where her children attended had been knocked down and rebuilt twice since she graduated. She heard some of the younger parents who visited elders in her nursing home talk about the place sometimes. How the once small classes fit for a dozen students now struggled to smash thirty plus bodies—which surely drowned the more timid voices lost beneath the mass of others.
A bike lane had been added to accommodate the increase in cyclers.
Biking was big in the ‘80s, and now the hipsters have brought it back. A once beloved leisure her body begged her to give up.
The city bus pulled up with an exhausted groan. Compared to the bus stop, the old machine looked even worse for wear. The driver greeted her with an unwelcoming grunt. The deep lines buried his brows as he gestured that she move along.
“Tick-tock, lady. Got a schedule to keep.”
Doris rose, wincing at her aching bones. Perhaps she ought to lose weight, but it was more a flight of fancy than anything—the days when she enjoyed long morning runs before busy work days and long nights socializing with her well-groomed friends were far behind her.
She dragged herself down the aisle. She chose a quieter spot near the back window, where she settled down heavily and watched the city pass by.
She wondered if there’d be a day she wouldn’t be able to recognize it at all, not even with her own memories.
Does this passage feel more interesting? More emotive?
The reason is because the theme of time comes through, not only for Doris, but in the poorly maintained bus stop (ancient; contrast against the fast-paced city), the passing of seasons and time (fall, turn of the century), and word choices (tick-tock).
The bus is an old machine, the driver has lines over his brows, the old trend of biking comes full circle, and Doris is no longer the young buck she use to be—and it’s evident that she longs for her younger days, especially with how she reflects on everything that’s changed.
Every part of this passage now emphasizes time, using words that call to mind clocks, seasons, fast and slow, old and young.
Not only does it bring forth the theme and message more strongly, it also makes the story more vivid, tight, and emotional.
It’s important, as you can see, how theme connects a character and their story to a reader. Making a list of items that can be woven into a scene to enhance a thematic message before draft one or definitely in draft two may help you with writing theme itself and developing it into your own story.
Examples of Themes in All Types of Stories
If you’ve been hanging around The Write Practice community for a while, you might have learned about the six types of story arcs. Each arc is an example of how the human brain makes sense of life. It’s how we humans shape meaning, and why we use stories to do this.
As a quick refresher, these six story arcs include:
- Rags to Riches
- Riches to Rags
- Man in a Hole
- Icarus/Freytag’s Pyramid
To better understand how themes work in story, take a look at how one theme works in each story arc, based on the example pulled to model this. We will return to these examples at the end of this post, when I will show you how to use my secret way for developing a theme into your story.
1. Rags to Riches: Matilda
In the “Rags to Riches” story arc, the plot change is a continuous upward climb toward a happily ever after.
Although themes can impact all characters in a story, they most dominantly impact the protagonist who, by making crisis decisions, drives the main story arc. In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, this character is Matilda.
Matilda is a brilliant girl with special powers (she can move objects with her mind), which she acquires in her early years while neglected by her family. A theme in Matilda that mirrors her story arc could be something to deal with loyalty, since characters who show loyalty to one another often overcome their enemies, like the Trunchbull.
Writing Theme in Rags to Riches: Choose a thematic message, like loyalty, that often pays off when the protagonist makes decisions that create a fall to rise arc.
2. Riches to Rags: Catcher in the Rye
In a Riches to Rags story, the plot experiences a downward fall towards destruction. Holden Caulfield’s spiraling grip on reality and his purpose for living is a good example of this.
Mirroring this dip, a theme for this book could be based on the protection of innocence, since Holden’s obsession to protect innocence carries most of his actions in the book, even if he constantly fails at achieving this dream.
Writing Theme in Riches to Rags: Choose a thematic message, like protection of innocence, that often pays off when the protagonist makes decisions that create a rise to fall arc.
3. Man in a Hole: Pixar’s Finding Nemo
Man in a Hole story arcs can experience one or multiple dips, meaning that there are various rises and falls throughout the plot, ending ultimately with a rise.
Marlin’s quest to find his son Nemo in Finding Nemo is a great example of this, since Marlin experiences various ups and downs in his quest to find and bring home his son.
Reflective of this fall and rise and fall and rise again, a theme in Finding Nemo could reflect on the importance of trust or not putting your fears on others, since Marlin needs to learn how to trust in the abilities of Dory and Nemo in order to succeed, and therefore redeem his relationship with Nemo before the end.
Writing Theme in Man in a Hole: Choose a thematic message, like trust, that often pays off when the protagonist makes decisions that create multiple rises and falls throughout the plot.
4. Icarus/Freytag’s Pyramid: Titanic
This is the plot structure Gustav Freytag coined as Freytag’s Pyramid, which follows the rise and fall of a main character like Icarus, who grew in success but ultimately failed after flying too close to the son.
Rose and Jack’s love story speaks to this story arc, following a lover’s fire that is quickly turned into a fight for their survival (and one of their deaths). A theme that could be explored in Titanic is class is irrelevant in the face of death. This message is enforced after the ship hits the iceberg, and all people fight to survive, independent of their financial situation.
Writing Theme in Icarus/Freytag’s Pyramid: Choose a thematic message, like class in the face of death, that can pay off in a tragedy that shows how a character rises and then falls.
5. Cinderella: Disney’s Aladdin
The Cinderella arc, like Rags to Riches, is one of the most common arcs, always ending with happily ever after.
Aladdin is a great example of this, following a humble street rat who steals to eat until he befriends Genie, a magical being who makes him a prince in the hopes of helping Aladdin win the heart of the princess.
One theme that follows its story arc is what makes somebody a diamond in the rough— i. e. what really determines a person’s integrity (character instead of status).
Writing Theme in Cinderella: Choose a thematic message, like diamond in the rough, that often pays off when the protagonist undergoes a cinderella story arc, a rise and then maybe a fall and rise again to a happily ever after.
6. Oedipus: Gone With the Wind
The final story arc, the Oedipus arc, is one of the most difficult structures to pull off, but it’s also one of the most highly read structures: a fall then rise and then fall.
Gone With the Wind speaks to this arc through Scarlet O’Hara’s fall then rise then fall, with how she falls from status during the Civil War then rises back up with Rhet, and eventually falls again when she loses his affections for her (and recognizes her love for him too late).
A theme that touches on this arc could deal with the transformation of southern culture, and how Scarlet is forced to adapt based on her loses and gains.
Writing Theme in Oedipus: Choose a thematic message, like transformation of southern culture, that plays out with how the protagonist makes decisions that create a fall to rise and fall again.
The Secret (and Simple Way) to Writing Theme and Developing It in Your Story
Fitting a theme to your story doesn’t have to be complicated. By breaking it down to relevant words wrapped around a central idea, you can sprinkle it all throughout your book and reiterate your message to your readers in a subtle, consistent manner.
If you’re feeling stuck when coming up with a theme for your story, you can try to come up with a general idea and then list some concepts that could accompany it.
You might also turn back to your story arc and then ask yourself: “What’s a one or multiple word message that could show what my story’s arc is really about?”
And at the end of the day, I have another special secret for you:
If you don’t know your theme in the first draft, that’s OKAY! A lot of writers actually discover their themes along the way. Some start out writing one theme and realize it evolves into something completely different by the end.
What is important is that you understand your story themes at least in your revision process so you can make your story better by making your thematic messages consistent. And recurring.
Knowing your theme before writing your story isn’t as important as knowing your premise, or ideally, knowing the most important scenes holding up your plot.
But having a theme is essential to making your story meaningful and memorable.
What themes from a story have really stuck with you? Why do you think they were so memorable? Share in the comments below.
Practice Option 1: For fifteen minutes, make up a theme and list out five to ten words relevant to it. Really think about what it would take to integrate these words into a story, and if you have some time, write out a few sentences in a scene that does this.
Practice Option 2: Pick one of the story arcs mentioned above and come up with a thematic statement reflective of this story arc. Then, spend fifteen minutes drafting a premise that hints at what the story is really about