I used to have trouble deciding how my stories should end. I could write from cliffhanger to cliffhanger easily. But draft a satisfying resolution? Provide closure? That didn’t come naturally to me at all—not until I started paying more attention to my stories’ themes.
If you can’t decide where you want your story to go (plot-wise), try deciding what you want your story to say (theme-wise) first.
Let’s examine what themes are, where they come from, and how to handle them with care.
What is a theme?
To see the parable of the blind men and the elephant come to life, ask a group of literature nerds to agree on a definition of theme.
According to literarydevices.net, a theme is “the central, deeper meaning of a written work.” That definition is great from a reader’s perspective. But how should writers think about and use themes?
Well, to be frank, writers don’t technically need to think about themes. When you tell a tight, coherent story with good plot and character development, strong themes worm their way in naturally.
If telling tight, coherent stories is a struggle for you, you are far from alone. Intentional theme development may help you find a keener sense of direction, as it has done for me.
Here are five things every writer should know about themes and theme development:
- A theme is a story’s attitude toward a common human interest such as love, vengeance, greed, resilience, friendship, technology, or politics. All stories address human interests to some degree, so all stories have themes—even stories about aliens, spirits, animals, and elementals.
- Themes tend to emerge from an author’s personal values and perceptions—often without an author’s conscious awareness—and take root deep within a story’s internal logic. From there, themes can manifest just about anywhere, from a story’s subject matter to its metaphors, tropes, and messages.
- Themes needn’t be profound or irrefutable. They just need to remind readers of the world outside your narrative… without distracting from your narrative.
- Themes work best when you ask them to warm up to a whisper rather than show up shouting. If you force them to become the center of attention, they will make things awkward. You’ll end up with a dry sermon instead of an immersive story. So let themes create subtext while your plot and characters put on a dazzling show full of arguments, fistfights, magic spells, romantic entanglements, zombie apocalypses, and so on. Let plot be theme’s charismatic wingperson; let theme be plot’s designated driver.
- Theme development is the practice of identifying a story’s major themes and turning to them for creative guidance. And given items 1–3, intentional theme development is optional.
How do I build a story around a theme (on purpose)?
There’s no time like now to identify your story’s themes!
To find the themes of a work in progress, look at your motivations for writing the story. What broad topics does your story raise and what are your personal attitudes toward those topics?
If you write speculative fiction (as I do), you might have to do some extra digging to understand your creative motivations. For example, maybe my story about bodysnatching ghosts is my way of processing my feelings about complicated family legacies. Maybe my story about magic-coveting pirates is really about my fascination with the consequences of corporate greed. As I dig deeper, I discover that I have some strong opinions about family legacies and corporate greed. Although both stories might involve other themes, I will focus on developing the themes I’m most passionate about.
Once I find a theme that excites me, I build a thematically relevant context, contrast, and conclusion around it:
- A relevant context exists when my story’s premise evokes the topic of interest.
- A relevant contrast exists when my story explores varying perspectives on the topic of interest. I need this contrast to create meaningful tension and conflict throughout the story.
- A relevant conclusion exists when the story’s ending (e.g., plot resolutions, character fates) suggests or proves something about the topic of interest. You can also think of the conclusion as a prevailing message.
I’m sure there are other ways to develop a theme, but this method works wonders for me. Let’s see how it works in my ghost story:
- Context: My novel takes place in a world where ghosts can haunt or possess their descendants, so all my principal characters have complicated family legacies (my topic of interest).
- Contrast: The characters who take their ancestors’ demands way too seriously will clash with the ones who crave autonomy by any means necessary.
- Conclusion: The characters who learn to think and choose for themselves, and who support others’ efforts to do the same, will triumph. (The message: We can’t choose which traits and expectations we inherit, but we can choose what we do with them.)
That’s the gist of it—and about as much preconceived structure as this improviser/pantser can stomach. On to wrapping my chosen context, contrast, and conclusion in science-fantasy and horror elements for a young adult audience!
For me, intentional theme development is the best path to high-quality plot and character development. Before I embraced the theme-development path, I had a lot of trouble navigating from exciting beginnings to satisfying endings. I upped my plot and character development game, deepened my world-building, and still felt like some essential spark was missing.
Or, as George Orwell wrote, “looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.” Orwell preferred political themes (defining political “in the widest possible sense”); I’m drawn to psychological themes.
Turns out I just can’t grok how a story should end until I understand what the story is “really” about for me, on a deep psychological level. But once I know what theme I’d like to explore, I’m pretty much set. I’m less likely to give in to distractions and self-doubt and more likely to finish the dang story.
I love working with themes, whether I’m reading, writing, or editing stories. What about you? What themes do your favorite stories tend to share? Does theme development enhance your creative process, or do you rely on some other device to pull your stories together? Let me know in the comments!