What’s a Story Theme?
What’s a Story Theme? – Audio version
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 they can suffer from meandering, both for the writer and reader.
Without a clear THEME in your head before you start, you can get lost early on, or make as far as the middle before scratching your head thinking – where is this going or what do I write next? It’s a key reason so many people give up on a story, and even halt a promising writing career, or maybe miss out on an enriching and satisfying hobby.
So what does THEME mean for an author, and why does it have such an impact?
If your an inexperienced writer, a story appears easy. It’s a sequence of things that happen around characters. So you set off with an idea and start writing. You choose someone and think up some scenes. If you’re clued up, you know to create a ‘bad character’ who’s job it is to stop your main character from reaching their goal.
But at some point the writing stumbles and begins to feel flat, unsatisfying, being just a bunch of stuff that’s happened. There are a few things that can cause this, and lack of THEME is a main one.
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 rarely how it felt. Successful stories are about invoking an emotional experience. If the reader is made to laugh, cry, be angry, sad, or even curious or thoughtful, then the story was a success.
Creating this emotional response is made far easier, and is created deeper, through choosing a strong THEME for your story. Consider it the delivery angle.
Choosing and Applying a Story Theme
The seven most popular themes in traditional storytelling are:
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 a far stronger emotional response.
- 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. But 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 friends too afraid to help, then 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 fear retribution from bully’s parents. Perhaps an older sister who bullies him too. You make the reader feel for the child as he is increasingly isolated and alone with his problem. 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.
- Let’s take one more 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 now you 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 you choose a THEME of 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 openly mocked by both. How would a story such as that 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 from a story that has staying power, impact and the strongest ending.
Go back over a story you didn’t finish or you weren’t satisfied with. It can be anything for a short one to a novel. Did you write it with a THEME in mind? If not, decide it’s THEME and see if you can work out the weak scenes and plot failings. Can you see where you went wrong and with some editing to better expose the THEME, turn it around?
Let me know how you get on by posting a reply at the bottom of the page.
Miles changed careers in 2008 from Senior Systems Designer in aviation to become a self-published fantasy author. His first book hit No 1 on Amazon for Epic Fantasy and knocked The Hunger Games from the top slot in Waterstones. In 2010 he started a self-publishing business, and began creative writing meet-ups in Kent called NAGS which have been running bi-weekly for four years.
He now writes, runs NAGS, and teaches a range of frank and honest courses for new authors on creative writing, self-publishing and book marketing, including for the Canterbury Christchurch University and North Kent College.
“It was great having Miles teaching to us today.
It’s given me some fantastic things to
think about – a very inspiring speaker,
thank you for a brilliant session.”
Emily Dorsett Beard
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