Story Themes

How to Develop the Theme of Your Story

2 Jan 2024 The Writing Craft

Without a deeper meaning than just its plot, your story remains a shell of what it could be.

A story with a theme answers, what does this mean?

That’s the kind of a story that resonates with readers and stays with them.

Think of it this way: a book should be more than simply about something; it should be for the purpose of something. Sure, tell a story, but know what you’re trying to say to your readers.

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Getting Started: What Is Theme?

Plot is what happens Theme is why it happens. Why you’re telling this story. It’s the message you want readers to take away.

In fact, I urge you to determine why you want to tell a story before you even begin. Know why you’re writing what you’re writing. Don’t just write to write. That’s not a good enough reason to be a writer. Write because you have something to say.

Ask yourself:

What will this story teach my reader about life?

If you write to merely entertain, don’t expect your stuff to be memorable.

Clear Theme Examples

  • Aesop’s Fable The Tortoise and the Hare (The danger of overconfidence)
  • George Orwell’s 1984 (The beauty of individual freedom and the danger of absolute power)
  • Lord of the Rings by J.R.R.Tolkien (Love and mercy overcome evil)
  • The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (Endurance and perseverance know no age)
  • The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry (The timeless beauty of sacrificial love)
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum (The dearest things to us are often found at home)

Allowing Theme to Speak for Itself

Resist the urge to explicitly state your theme in the story. That may have worked in a quaint way with Dorothy at the end of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but readers today don’t need the theme writ large. Tell your story and it should explore your theme and make its own point.

Readers are smart.

Subtly weave your theme into a story and trust readers to get it. Don’t rob them of the experience.

In my own novel Though None Go With Me, I wanted to explore the question of whether there was any payoff this side of heaven for a life of complete surrender to God. At a young age my heroine decides to make the rest of her life an experiment of obedience to God.

Her reward? She becomes a modern-day Job with everything she cherishes ripped from her. In the end we experience with her a Mr. Holland’s Opus type ending, answering the theme’s question, but letting the reader come to his own conclusion.

Know your theme and explore it through your story. Your writing will never be the same.

Need help writing your novel? Click here to download my ultimate 12-step guide.