Deepening Our Story: Theme It Like You Mean It

jami-goldOur story’s themes—our messages to readers of what to value or believe—can add depth and meaning to our writing, but to avoid being too on-the-nose, our themes are usually developed in the story’s subtext. Unfortunately, working in subtext means we can accidentally create unintentional themes—sometimes the opposite of what we intend.

What Creates a Theme?

To understand how we might create unintentional themes, we first have to understand what creates themes within our story—what impressions we’ve created:

  • Story Themes: What’s the premise of the story? Who’s supposed to win or lose—and why?
  • Character Themes: How does the protagonist change over the course of the story? What do they learn?
  • Plot Themes: During the story’s turning points, what do the characters attempt? Do they succeed or fail—and why?
  • Choices Themes: What choices are the characters making? Do the results match the Story or Character Themes (choices that agree with the themes should succeed and vice versa)?
  • Villain Themes: Are the villain’s beliefs reinforced or disproved by plot events?

Themes are powerful to insert into fiction, deepening the story. Visit for how to do it right and pitfalls to avoid. What Are Unintended Themes?

Unintended themes undermine our message. As an example, with a theme of “Friends help us succeed,” we might accidentally weaken our message in the following ways:

  • Story Themes: Our protagonist succeeds because of luck rather than help from friends.
  • Character Themes: Our protagonist never learns to value friendship.
  • Plot Themes: Our characters succeed at tasks when even friends aren’t around to help or fail despite the help of friends.
  • Choices Themes: Our protagonist succeeds despite making choices that dismisses or disrespects friends.
  • Villain Themes: Our villain isn’t defeated due to our hero’s friends or our villain’s lack of friends.

Those story points could create an unintentional message to readers: Luck helps us more than friends. Probably not what we meant. *smile*

Potential Unintended Themes Lurk Everywhere

Every choice our characters make, every plot point, every obstacle—in other words, every cause and effect—can potentially create the wrong message.

  • If our “hero” succeeds even when incompetent, we’re sending a message about what heroism looks like in our story world—and it’s not pretty.
  • If our romance hero’s interest focuses on a superficial or temporary status (such as virginity or “innocence”), we’re implying their relationship will end when the innocence is gone.
  • If our “chosen one” protagonist “earns” the label of hero solely due to right-place-right-time or a certain genealogy rather than heroic acts or sacrifices, we’re saying greatness is a matter of circumstance and not action.
  • If our villain’s eventual failure isn’t related to their “wrong” beliefs, we might create the impression that our hero wins simply due to luck.

How Can We Fix Unintended Themes?

It’s often difficult to recognize unintentional themes in our writing, so feedback from others can be crucial. Once we’re aware, we need to identify what’s creating the wrong impression:

  • Do we have plot events developing the wrong theme?
  • Is the climax (or other emotional turning points) the source of the problem (often the case)?
  • Is a plot event itself a problem, or just the results/decisions for the event or scene?
  • Would changing earlier scenes improve the theme arc by showing a “trying and failing” approach until they learn to do it right?
  • Is it a characterization problem (how they’re shown) or a word choice problem (too harsh of words)?
  • Do minor characters tell one theme but character actions show another?

In essence, we need to pay attention to the cause-and-effect chain in our story—especially the why: Why is the character experiencing each success or failure?

The answer to that question—as well as any results or responses to events—should follow the lead of our theme. Otherwise, we need to refine the theme to fit the realities of our story. A single scene or reaction can be the cause of problems, and the right tweaking can fix the theme for the whole story.

How Can We Vary Results without Breaking the Theme?

That’s not to say that our protagonist should never succeed unless they’re perfectly in line with the theme. In fact, an exception often occurs during our story’s Black Moment, as the purpose of that turning point can be to make characters question their efforts to improve when they fail despite trying to do the “right” thing.

To avoid unintended themes in those cases, we could ensure the character wasn’t doing the “right” thing completely enough yet, or they were doing the “right” thing for the wrong reasons, or we could show how they’ve “lost faith.” Whatever our story’s situation, if we write with purpose, we’re less likely to create unintended themes. *smile*

Do you have any questions about themes—intentional or unintentional?

jami-picture-200-x-300_framedAfter muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.

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28 Responses to Deepening Our Story: Theme It Like You Mean It

  1. Why is there such an emphasis themes nowadays? The idea of a theme seems to me rather like ‘And the moral of the story is…’ Why can’t we just tell a good tale with no moralising?

  2. I always have trouble with the idea of theme. It seems to me that nowadays as writers we must always have a ‘message’ to send to our readers, perhaps how friendship can help overcome problems, or finding strength from within. What’s wrong with just telling a good story? These ‘themes’ people are always going on about seem to be a bit like ‘the moral of the story’ and that every tale must teach something.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Vivienne,

      That’s a valid question, and the answer is that our stories contain messages whether we intend them or not.

      For example, if our characters learn about themselves (such as their false beliefs, fears, or values) or about the world, readers learn right along with them. That lesson is a theme.

      In other words, themes usually aren’t–and shouldn’t be–as spoonfed as “the moral of the story is…” Instead, they exist only in the subtext, as the storytelling itself makes readers subconsciously think about things like: what to value, what to believe, what to hope for, what to aim for, what’s worth fighting for, etc.

      The goal here is: As our story will include messages no matter what, we may as well make sure they’re the messages we want. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Elias says:

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Marina Costa says:

    I have another problem, in a historical fiction: some villains can’t be really punished, because they are historical figures (who had done enough bad things, both documented and undocumented, but they were too powerful, think Western town lords, and they died in their beds, of old age, untroubled by anyone for what they have done). Of course, their fictional sidekicks got their comeuppance… Hopefully it doesn’;t give the wrong message/ theme… It’s just historically true, that you can fight and overcome some villains, others can’t be overcome…

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Marina,

      I think the idea that we can’t control everything is realistic. That said, if you don’t want your theme to feel like “nothing we do matters” (which IS a valid theme as well–it just might not be what you want if you like a happy-ish ending), you might be able to expand what is considered “punishment”.

      For example, does the villain get kicked out of that town and have to set up shop somewhere else? Are they reduced in power because they need all new minions? Is there at least a message of “we’re keeping an eye on you, and if you cross this line, we’ll get rid of you for good”?

      Any one of those (or similar) outcomes could create a sense that there were consequences for the villain’s actions. That would help make the story events feel like they matter, theme-wise.

      Even in the paranormal romance I write, in half my novels, the villain isn’t explicitly killed and might come back to cause more trouble in future books. Part of how we deal with that problem is by setting up the Story Problem in Act One to be something that will be resolved by the end.

      In other words, if the Story Problem we establish by the 25% mark isn’t that the villain is destroyed but that X injustice is stopped, we can make that happen by the resolution. That will be a happy ending because the Story Goal isn’t to destroy the villain but to solve X problem. Does that make sense?

      (This sounds like a good idea for a blog post, so I’m happy to explain more. LOL! And thanks for the question and idea! 🙂 )

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  8. I’m reading this at a perfect time! Thank you ….

  9. Cathryn Cade says:

    Jami,

    Truly excellent article, thank you! Adding this to my bank of story outlining helps.

  10. Theme, to me, is like a baking ingredient. You don’t really notice it all by itself, but when it’s included (and done well), the overall product is just better. Thanks for the info, Jami 🙂

  11. Great things to consider.

  12. Elizabeth Randolph says:

    What does this say about all the young adult stories where the protagonist finds they have been chosen, or they were born with some gift they must discover? This may explain why I find those books so unsatisfying. Sure, the protagonists may have to learn how to use their gifts, but that is not as good as finding strength within, something we all can do. Thank you for helping me clarify my thoughts.

    • Cathryn Cade says:

      Elizabeth,
      Great point. Those books only work if the protagonist must struggle against an equal or greater character fault in order to accept and use their ‘gift’.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      There’s a way to make those stories work–that whole trope isn’t *wrong*. 🙂 But we’d want to think about how we can tweak the message to be more inclusive, so readers can feel aspirational about the story.

      For example, the protagonist could surround themselves with “normal” sidekicks who discover their strength within as well. The protag could use their gifts in ways counter to the expectation, or they grow beyond just the boundaries of their gift, surpassing that level of greatness due to their own actions, etc.

      In many ways, Harry Potter is a great example of how to twist the “chosen one” trope. He takes his abilities granted by the horcrux and uses his choices and actions to do *more* than anyone thought possible. 🙂 Hope that helps!

  13. Thanks so much for this, Jami. So maybe a theme in memoir could be “Never allow an opportunity to pass you by,” or is that too broad? With my memoir about attending college as a mother of 5, I needed to take opportunities available so as not to be left with regret. This is what I always told my children and now I needed to do it to show them I live what I say. It was scary, though.

    Thanks for sharing your insight with writers, Jami.

    • Jami Gold says:

      Hi Victoria,

      I don’t think that message is necessarily too broad, but you might want to think about developing it from the perspective of “why not?” What consequences come from passing up opportunities? Or what are the risks involved?

      In other words, while themes ideas are often vague, we’d usually want to make sure that when we develop that idea, we have more to say. For example, why should readers agree that it’d be a bad thing to pass up opportunities?

      One option to develop that theme would be to build it up with instances of other opportunities being presented–and not taken and then leading to regret. In other words, passing up opportunities = regret, and not passing up opportunities = growth, happiness, or success.

      This post I wrote about how to DEVELOP themes might help (https://jamigold.com/2018/02/writing-craft-master-lists-filling-in-the-blanks-theme-development/). My example looked at how to actually explore and implement a theme about the vague idea of “survival.” Hope that helps! 🙂

  14. Jami Gold says:

    Always glad to contribute here, Angela and Becca. Thanks for having me! 🙂

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