How to Write a Theme for your Story

What do you think is the most important element of a story? Some people say the plot. Others say the characters. They’re both wrong. The most important element you need to develope for your story is a theme! So, today we’ll learn how to write a strong theme. 

Sure stories are meant to entertain us with gripping plots and complex characters. Good stories will always do that. But great stories do more. They teach us about life and about ourselves. Great stories have something to say that a plot and characters can’t. 

But a solid theme can. That’s why were going to talk about how you can develop a theme for your story. 

What is a Theme?

In the simplest terms, a theme is an idea. It’s not what your story is about. That would be the plot. The theme is what you, the writer, are trying to say about life, and the human condition. It’s the moral of your story, or the lesson that you want readers to take away.

A theme can usually be distilled to a single, sometimes wordy, sentence. A  simple theme would be, “love conquers all.” However, a theme cannot be expressed in  one word. “Love” is not a theme because you need to actually say something about love. 

Your plot answers the who, what, where, and when. A well-developed theme answers the most important question- Why? As in why are you writing this story? And, why should a reader care? 

In her book, Wired for Story, author Lisa Cron gives the best definition for theme I’ve ever read: 

“Theme is what your story says about human nature. Theme tends to be reflected in how your characters treat each other so it defines what is possible and what isn’t in the world the story unfolds in… it’s often what detetermines whether the protagonist’s efforts will succeed or fail, regardless of how heroric she is.” 

Wired for Story gives readers a unique insight on how the brain is hardwired to find meaning in fiction, and how an author can use that wiring to hack their readers’ mind and keep them interested in their story. It’s a great resource, and using the paid link above will help support the blog. 

Now, let’s look at some examples of theme from recent pop-culture. 

Examples of Theme

Family are the people who love and support you, those loved ones you choose to have in your life- the Harry Potter series

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In the Harry Potter series family is perhaps best represented by the close-knit family unit- the Weasleys. The Weasleys are also Harry’s adopted family. Rowling contrasts the loving Weasleys to Harry’s biological family, the Dursleys. The Dursleys are cold and abusive towards Harry.

Through contrast, Rowling shows that your true family are the friends who love and support you. Family doesn’t only consist of blood relatives, but also the people you choose to build lasting relationships with. In Harry’s case these people include the Weasleys, but also characters like Hermoine, Serius and Remus. 

Power in the wrong hands is the cause of worldly violence- A Game of Thrones

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Whether it’s the book or the TV series, the theme of Power is at the heart of George R.R. Marin’s story. Who has power and who is struggling for it? What sacrifice are you willing to make to take power?

Ned Stark is not willing to sacrifice his own moral code to the pursuit of power so he pays the ultimate price. is: A question I believe the story is concerned with is this: Who is worthy or weilding power? And, who can gain power without out completly corrupting their own soul?  

The mindless consumption of mass media will corrupt society- Fahrenheit 451

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When Ray Bradbury wrote his most famous work he did not mean for it to be a commentary on government censorship. Althoug, the novel is often interpreted that way. What Bradbury was really concerend about was how people were, “being turned into morons by TV.

The characters in Fahrenheit 451 live as slaves to their electronic entertainment. They immerse themselves in televised “parlors,” and plug their ears with  radio “seashells.” Bradbury was deeply concerend about how people interacted with television as one of the earliest forms of mass media.

In his novel, Bradbury predicted a world where people are consumed by their electronic media bubbles. This was before the inventions of the internet, smartphones, and Bluetooth earbuds…

So those are a few examples, but let’s deal with the real question: 

How do you develop a theme?

Start with an idea

Like I said before, themes can’t be just one word like love or power. 

But, you can start your writing process by tackling one of these big ideas.

Take one of these big ideas and ask yourself, what do I want to say about Love? What are my opinions about Money, or Power, or Gender Identity? Your opinions on these concepts matter because they are uniquely yours

You may say to yourself, how can I write about love? What could I add that hasn’t been already been said? Well, you have your own unique viewpoint.

Think about how you’ve experienced love in your life. What do you want to say about love? What truth about the concept do you want to convey to your reader?

Maybe you think love is an illusion, a silly word we use to describe a biological impartive to pass on our genetic code. Geez, that’s harsh. Who hurt you? Whatever, we’ll go with it. 

Construct character’s who illustrate your theme

Construct characters that deal with love in their interactions with one another. Illustrate your theme through those inter actions- Maybe your characters are promiscuous and untethered from each other. 

Obstacles are created in the plot when your characters try to form deep relationships based on an idolized form of love. 

Create a symbol

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Once you’ve chosen your theme, you may want to choose a symbol to represent it. This could be a character or an object. In Lord of the Rings, the One Ring represents the theme of Power.

The moral that Tolkien wants to convey is that Power, in the wrong hands, is a corrupting force in our world. In the text, only the most innocent, or noble characters can resist this corruption. 

Another example of a thematic symbol is the conch from Lord of the Flies. The conch represents rules and order. Once the conch breaks the society, within the story, breaks as well. Cruelty and chaos run amok.

Symbols are a great way to present complex ideas. Fire can represent passion, gold can represent wealth. Your readers will understand these symbols intuitively. No need to bore them with a lot of exposition or dialogue.

Have characters discuss the theme

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The best way to explore a theme is to have your characters talk about it. When I say talk, I really mean argue. Steer clear of editoriazling, or having a character preach a theme directly to your reader. 

And don’t have every character parrot your own opinions on a theme. There’s no conflict if everyone agrees with one another. Make your characters take opposing viewpoints. Have them argue with each other. If you agree with one viewpoint over another then reveal that through the conflict of the plot. 

In the movie, Jurassic Park Ian Malcolm is in conflict with park owner John Hammond. He argues that Hammond and his scientists are playing God. Hammond holds his own in their debates. However, the plot proves Malcolm right when the dinosaurs break free, and you know… start eating people.

Explore theme from different angles

As shown in Jurassic Park, characters should argue about the theme. Have characters that argue the opposite of what you believe. It’s always fun to play the devil’s advocate. 

But, don’t lose focus. Make sure the reader understands the theme you want to convey. Those characters who have opposing views should be proven wrong through the plot. 

Reveal theme through the central conflict

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Your primary theme should bare out in your protagonist’s conflict. If you’re arguing that money is the source of all evil, then your story’s climax should reflect that idea in some way.

Say your protagonist is a low-level Wall Street broker. He meets a successful investor who decides to take your character on as an apprentice. After a while, your hero discovers that their mentor engages in morally corrupt practices.

Blinded by his pursuit of wealth your character agrees to commit a crime, let’s say insider trading. However, in the end your hero chooses the right path sacrificing their career and their freedom in the process.

Through the plot, your protagonists learns that their are more important things then the all-consuming pursuit of wealth. 

Ok, this is the plot of the movie Wall Street but you get the idea. Charlie Sheen’s conflict in the movie has everything to say about the theme. The director doesn’t need to come out from behind the camera and tell us what the movie is really about. 

Additonal Resources: 

Forget theme! Instead ask, “And so, what’s my point?”-  Lisa Cron

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