Writing · Writing Guide

Finding Theme.

About two and a half years ago I went to a writer’s workshop taught by Kelly Sue DeConnick.  I talk about that workshop a lot, because it pretty much changed my life.  I had been writing for as long as I could remember, but that workshop was the first time I really started to see how stories are made.  She also said she often starts with characters, which leads to plot, which leads to theme.  

Not everyone writes this way of course. In both novels and comics, there are great writers out there that start with plot, or theme, and work at it from another angle.

Do what works for you.  If you are not sure what that is, play with with different ways of approaching a story.

This is what works for me, most of the time:

I start with character, sometimes I have a plot or backstory in mind for them.  That’s when I start to think about theme.  What do I want this story to say?  What do I want to say?  I may have a draft started or even finished at this point, or I might be half way through and not sure where the story is going.  Theme helps me focus those ideas.

I’ve been working on a lot of shorter stories lately (along with revisions on my first novel and the first draft of my second) so theme has been on my mind often lately.  For me, theme definitely does spring from character.  For short stories especially, you want that theme to run throughout the story, but not be so obvious that the reader feels like they are being hit over the head with it.

Theme can often be a way for the author to share their voice in a more subtle way.  In my story Teeth, Nails and Pain the theme was about overcoming an abusive relationship.  I’ll be honest, I didn’t write that story with a theme in mind.  That story sort of wrote itself, but the ones that followed were not quite so easy.

Once the story is written, the theme maybe clearly stated or just implied.  It is up to you as the author the approach you take.  In one of my more recent stories, the first words we read the characters saying are actually the theme.  I felt that it set the tone for the story and let the reader clearly know what I was about to write about.  Your story may start out with something like “The world is a wild place.” and follow with a plot about living in the wild, or maybe it’s about how humans live in cities, but we’re still savage animals deep down.  Either way, you’ve mentioned your theme, and in that story, your reader will know what to expect.

In  Teeth, Nails and Pain, I did the opposite.  The theme isn’t completely revealed until the twist ending.  Though my theme may have been less intentional in that story, the twist was not, and that is what ties my theme and plot together.

If you have written a story but you’re not sure what the theme is, go back through it and look at what the characters are fighting for or against.  What do they want?  What have they done to get it?  Why is it important?  Did they fail?

What does that all say?  What do you want it say?


7 thoughts on “Finding Theme.

  1. I’m planning a novel right now. I started with a character in mind, and getting the plot in mind, and also a “theme”. I imagine all these things, save for the initial character, might and probably will change once I start writing the thing.

    1. They totally can and sometimes do. I think it helps to have an idea in mind, but I’m the kind of writer that loves me a good outline. I know writers who don’t use outlines though, and their ideas/themes/plot tend to change a lot over the course of the writing. Is this your first novel?

      1. I’ve started many novels and have written hundreds of pages. They all sit unfinished.

        So yeah, this is why I’m doing a bit of pre-planning. I hate it but I know it will pay off.

      2. I totally understand that. I’ve done National Novel Writing Month the last three Novembers, and the first one, I didn’t plan at all. That novel will never see the light of day, because it’s a big mess. The other two, one is being revised right now and I’m working to finish the other. The planning has helped me a lot, so has setting a daily word count.

  2. Theme is often tough for writers to grasp. If you try to sum it up, it comes off sounding trite and cliche. For me, theme is often found in my gut not in my head.

    1. I think too, because it can sound cliche, writers have to be careful when they spell the theme out for the reader. I’m sort of in between. I think about theme a lot, but sometimes it’s my gut that has the final say.

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