Writing Themes

What’s a Story Theme?

 What’s a Story Theme?

Story Theme
Edmond Blackadder once said to the Queen of England (Queenie) in Blackadder II, “Without you Ma’am, life is like a broken pencil – pointless.”

I can’t think of a better way to sum up the need for a theme in a story. Without one the story suffers from meandering, both for the writer and reader. Without a clear Theme in the head of the author before they start, they often get lost shortly in, or make as far as the middle before scratching their head thinking: where is this going? It’s the single greatest reason so many people give up on a story and halt a promising writing career, or miss out on an enriching and satisfying hobby.

So what does Theme mean for an author, and why does it have such an impact?

For an untrained writer, a story appears easy. It’s a sequence of things that happen around characters. So they set off with an idea and start writing. They choose someone (often based on someone they know), and think up some scenes. If they’re clued up, they would know to create a ‘bad guy’ too.

But somehow the writing soon feels flat, unsatisfying, being just a bunch of stuff that happens.

The reason is almost certainly going to come down to lack of feeling. We live our lives talking and communicating facts. Even when relating stories verbally down the pub, or writing home, we focus on things that happened, and not how it felt. Successful stories are about invoking an emotional experience. If it makes you laugh, cry, angry, sad, or even curious or thoughtful, then the story was a success.

Creating an emotional response is best served through choosing a Theme for your story. Consider it the delivery angle.

Choosing and Applying a Story Theme

The seven most popular themes in traditional storytelling are:

  1. Fate
  2. Ambition
  3. Sacrifice
  4. Transformation
  5. Love
  6. Vengeance
  7. Resurrection

The Rocky films, for instance, were number 7. When viewers see a familiar story theme, even though they’re aren’t told what it is, they’re more likely to home in on the message you’re trying to send and have an emotional response.


  1. You decide to write a story about a child being beaten up at school because he’s undersized. Straight away you can see some scenes in classes, the playground, or the toilets away from prying eyes. Maybe you think, well the Theme is obviously bullying. Let me stop you right there. The Theme isn’t the story, it’s the underlying message, so what if I said instead the theme was going to be:
  • Isolation. Now we have a new view to it. The scenes are going to depict the child being bullied, then perhaps going home to a drunken father who doesn’t care, a mum who’s always out at work and says ‘it’s just kids, they’ll grow out of it’, and teachers who are in fear of the bully’s parents. Perhaps an older sister who bullies him too. The ending for such a book might not be pleasant, with a powerful emotional impact and a strong message.
  • Vengeance. Now we see a whole new story arc. The boy, against all odds, plans to turn the tables and get his own back. And perhaps this has a nice ending where he wins, or a bad one where he fails and things get worse. In the latter, perhaps the theme would be expanded to the futility of vengeance.
  1. Let’s take a second example, a story about a husband who finds his wife has been cheating on him. Our immediate thoughts turn to obvious scenes of the discovery, fighting, tears being shed. But if we now add a theme:
  • Forgiveness. Here we have a story that perhaps has the couple getting back together, we explore the power of love and friendship over temptation and desire, and that mistakes happen.
  • If, however, we borrow from the first example and say Vengeance again, we can see a completely different story line. Maybe now we have a murder story, first exploring the pain of the husband, then turning an ordinary man, through hatred and jealously to plotting to kill one or both of the culprits. Again, the ending could be either way.
  • But what if I said the theme was Weakness. This is something very different, even uncomfortable. The husband perhaps is the one who is weak, and can’t do anything about it. The writer explores cowardice, with scenes of the husband being put down by the wife, the lover, or even worse, he is mocked by both. How would such a story end?

Whenever you write a story, it doesn’t matter how small, fiction or non-fiction, even for business, without a theme you’re creating difficulty for yourself, and robbing the reader of a rich experience with a story that has staying power, impact and the strongest ending.

What’s your experience with writing themes?




Miles has run a self-publishing company since 2008, specialising in first-time authors, as well as being a successful self-published fantasy author, coach and trainer.

SIGN UP NOW for Miles’ Newsletter
For best practice, useful tips, interviews and news about writing and self-publishing sent straight to your inbox (I don’t share your details).

This is Who I Am

Why Your Business Biography is Killing Sales

This is Who I AmPersonal profiles have never been more crucial, and yet some parts we neglect so badly we’re not just losing out, were damaging our reputation and sales. This especially applies to creatives, but also very much to business people. Your short and punchy business biography is key to generating credibility, trust and therefore sales.

Why We Buy

Most of us are driven to make a purchase through either necessity (paying our electricity bills), or desire (a nice designer pair of shoes, or paying for the Sports channel). The first one is a logical choice – pay the bill or get cut off. The second is an emotional decision – we WANT it.

Selling a product or service by dangling a carrot using flat reasoning, mere facts to entice a sale, is weak motivationally. Engaging your prospective new clients with desire is 85% more likely to land a purchase, and that means using emotional stimulation over cold logical reasoning.

Now take a look at your online bio. Does it say something along the lines of:

I was born there…
I went to this university…
My qualifications are…
I’ve worked n years here, there…
I’m now this…

Most bio’s are like it; dry, and frankly aren’t they boring?

Do you think this makes you stand out when everyone else has the same list, just with different places and names? The best you can hope for is the reader came from your area, or went to your University.

Others are too clever and end up sounding self-centred, about why they’re so great and should be engaged. Many are a hard sell. Some even come across desperate.

The Great Bio

The secret to a great bio lies in all good novels: interesting characters, tension, a story ending in a flourish. Without a great character to love and read about, we lose interest. It’s been the basis of best-sellers since the dawn of writing. And guess what, you’re a character in you’re own life story.

Now I’m sure you’re first response to this is, “That’s no good for me, my life’s been boring”.

I hear it all the time. It’s all about digging up the right moments and applying good story-telling techniques to create a journey around you that brought you to where you are now, relevant to the attributes about you that prospective clients want to hear.

Few people are born story writers, so here are tips to writing your bio:

  • The story comes first – you second, yet has impact.
  • It’s interesting, engaging, immersive and memorable.
  • It conveys your core beliefs, opinions and principals.
  • It should chronicle a selected history thread, with a strong finish inspiring your prospect into action.

The Story Structure

There are many story structures that can be used, here’s a favourite. Use only one or two sentences for each of the following; it will create just enough overall copy to lure them to your product or services page (400-600 words).

  • Start with a setting of your early life, find something unusual if possible – just a sentence (I was born left-handed but forced to use my right – it profoundly changed the course of my life).
  • Follow with a trigger that puts you on the long road to where you’ve ended up. Perhaps you emigrated, or met someone. Even better if it’s something small that appears trivial, say, you lost your dog. (For me it was falling out of a tree!).
  • Now relate to a high point in your life that gets across you’re a skilled professional to be trusted, and someone who gets things done (I used to design software systems for fighter aircraft).
  • Next, try to find a low point; it’s surprisingly common. Tell us how you felt, so we can relate that you’re human. You’re not after sympathy here, merely trying to convey you have strength through adversity. (I lost everything, suffering from a debilitating depression).
  • If you did have a low point, tell us the trigger that launched your recovery. (I started writing a fantasy short story).
  • Now tell of your relevant successes, accolades, household names for clients if you have them, famous people you’ve worked with. And drop in how you’re currently feeling about it. (My first book knocked The Hunger Games from the top slot in Waterstones).
  • Finally, tell of your future vision, so clients know they will fit (and subliminally be inspired to be part of your story).

Top Tips

It’s really going to help if you know what who your typical client is going to be. If you can produce a clear picture of who they are, you’ll be better able to use topics and language that appeals to them, and narrow your marketing just for them.

Lastly, and crucially, be genuine, both with your facts and when expressing your opinions. People have an uncanny ability to sniff out if you’re pushing the truth to impress. If you have them doubt their trust in you, you’ll have to work hard to get it back, if you even get a second chance.


Good luck and feel free to post your new bio below for me to read. I promise I’ll get through as many as I can and comment.


My next Bio for Artists Workshop is 24th Feb 2016 Faversham, Kent, UK. (The next one for business people will be in April).

(Or contact me directly if you want to discuss having me interview you and write yours for you).


Miles has run a self-publishing company since 2008, specialising in first-time authors, as well as being a successful self-published fantasy author, coach and trainer.

SIGN UP NOW for Miles’ Newsletter
For best practice, useful tips, interviews and news about writing and self-publishing