Theme? My Story Has a Theme?


Begin bookAs we all know, writing, especially fiction, is not as simple as deciding on a story and penning it. Each chapter, scene, paragraph, and sentence must work together to tell the story you want and ensure reader satisfaction. A story has many crucial elements: plot, characters, pacing, setting, point of view, etc. Then there are things like arcs, story and character, to consider. It’s hard to believe how much goes on behind the scenes of each printed page. As an author in the midst of editing, I often find it daunting.

So, you might think it would be easier to back away from the minutiae and concentrate on the overall message of the story, the theme. Not for me. If you ask what the plot of my book is or what my protagonist wants, I can tell you. But if you’re looking for the theme of the story, I’m stumped. I find it difficult to forget all the plot turns and twists, all the character goals, or the emotional impacts.

You want a one-sentence theme? Rats!

“Well, the story is about a young woman who . . .” Nope. I’m told that the gist of the story is called the subject. The theme is the message conveyed by the whole story, something that runs all the way through it. At this point I’m thinking, why do I even care what the theme is? I Googled “writing themes” and found the answer in one of the blog posts. The explanation seemed too simple. Basically, it said that a theme is the underlying idea that the reader can feel, something that connects her to the characters and the story. The closer the story follows the theme, the more interesting it becomes to the reader because she can understand and experience the emotions it engenders and become part of the story.

My research came up with many sites that not only explain story theme, but give helpful examples. But, surprise! I discovered that, though there might be an over-arching theme for a story (the big picture), there can also be narrower themes that pertain to a more specific area or character. Oh dear!

Some of my confusion dissipated when I came across a site that helped me understand the big picture themes by giving specific examples from books and movies:

I pulled out a few examples:

  • The Big Mystery: Sherlock Holmes, Nancy Drew, Silence of the Lambs, Maltese Falcon.
  • The Great Journey: Huckleberry Finn, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, National Lampoon’s Vacation
  • Love: most romance novels
  • Revenge: Moby Dick, Revenge, PaybackMoby
  • Capriciousness of Fate: Oedipus Rex, Cinderella, Pretty Woman
  • The Great Battle: War of the Roses, Westside Story, Les Miserables

Other sites that showed narrower themes gave me a lot of help with my own work. I liked this one: themes.

The more I read, the more I began to understand what people were talking about. So, I decided to try my hand at finding a theme or themes for a book I recently read, Gone Girl. Though I loved the book, it had my head spinning and I despaired of identifying any theme.

I began with a site that offered “The 12 Most Common Themes in Literature“. After considering each theme, I chose: Yin and Yang: Just when you think life is finally going to be easy, something bad happens to balance it all out. That certainly happened in Gone Girl and was easy for me to see when I read the list.

Gone GirlNext I opened a site that gave me a longer, less generic list. Here I found some theme ideas that seemed to fit the book beautifully. I selected Betrayal, Deception, Jealousy, and Power. Examples of each of these ran all through the book. I probably couldn’t have come up with these ideas on my own. But, if I keep practicing, I know it’ll be easier.

Some of you could probably discover many more examples for this story, and I’d love to see them. Send me a comment about Gone Girl or any other book you’d care to try. What about your own?

I’ve come out of this blog with a much better idea of story theme and how it works. I can see, too, it’s importance to the book. Most people can identify with powerful emotions like Deception and Jealously. Somewhere in their lives, they probably experienced one or the other. As the readers feel the emotion, so too, do they invest in the characters.

While I’m writing this, I realize that Loss and Loneliness play a big part in my book and the motivations of my protagonist. I think I’m getting it! I hope something here helped you, too.

Remember, Keep Writing!


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3 thoughts on “Theme? My Story Has a Theme?

  1. Great post, Margo; have bookmarked a couple of these sites. I like what James Scott Bell says about theme: “If the writer uses scene objectives that relate to the overall story question, then the novel has organic unity and feels like there’s forward motion.” I think if you have great characters who tell their story, they hand you the theme. Good luck with the manuscript!


  2. Oh no! The link to the most common themes in literature is broken :`-(

    But great article, Margo! I’ve also found that the one-sentence theme summary to be one of the most useful things to do — it really focuses you on the things that really matter in the story. I would perhaps dispute some of your choices of theme, perhaps. Things like The Big Battle and The Big Mystery aren’t so much _themes_ as they are tropes of literature.

    I think themes should ideally reflect something of the human condition like, as you mention, love, greed, betrayal, power. I’m nerding out on this a little as I’ve recently published a post on a similar topic — along with an infographic on fiction themes!

    I’d love to get your thoughts on it!

    Keep up the fab work!

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