Let’s talk about theme, shall we? No, don’t run away. I know it can be hard to understand and even harder to do well, but theme plays such a huge part in writing a story that resonates with readers. Luckily, Daeus Lamb is here today to share a technique for incorporating theme into your story without being pedantic.
You’ve read that book before. All you can say at the end is, “Wow.” The book wasn’t just entertaining, it was…powerful.
Having done your due diligence and scoured the internet to learn how to write like this, you’ve learned that the power these stories carry comes from their well-executed themes. It sounds great in theory, but theme is a scary word. To be honest, you’ve started to think that theme is a mystical force that descends upon some novels and passes over others at random.
Let’s unpack theme and discover how it is actually easy to manage once you understand the basics. Before we get carried away, let’s ground ourselves with a definition.
Theme: the moral topic that your story covers
So far, so good. We know we don’t want to be preachy, but just having a moral topic in our story doesn’t sound too frightening. Your favorite novel probably covers a moral topic.
Pro tip: don’t confuse theme and message. A theme is a moral topic, and it isn’t controversial. “Love,” for instance, could be a theme. A message is the point you make about that theme, and messages very often are controversial. More on messages in a bit…
In your novel, you’ll want to pick one main theme to focus on. Let’s say your theme is love. That’s great! Lots of stuff can happen that’s related to love. Here’s what not everybody knows though. The best novels focus their energy primarily on one aspect of their theme. The tool we use to direct our focus is called a focusing question: a moral question about one aspect of your story’s theme. This is the main question your novel is trying to answer.
If our theme is love, one focusing question could be, “How do you love those who ignore you?” This doesn’t restrain us from writing scenes about love in general, but it keeps our story lean and strong. As much as we’d love to write a novel that encompasses everything there is to say about love, we’d only end up writing ourselves into a tangled mess.
Now that theme has been explained, let’s talk about how to execute it well in your story.
While there are a million different little tricks to improve your theme, the basics are not hard to master. We’re going to call the basic system for creating a good theme the parable strategy. In classic parables, lessons are effectively conveyed through this very simple process.
- Character A acts one way (good or bad).
- Characters B through Z act differently.
- Basic cause and effect takes place and characters experience different outcomes depending on their actions.
- The reader examines what happened and learns a lesson.
Step one is that character A (your protagonist) acts one way. We want our character’s actions to be pertinent to our theme, so we look at our theme and focusing question. In a beautiful piece of simplicity, all we have to do is give him his own personal answer to our focusing question by which he operates in life. Our character could have many answers to the focusing question of “How do you love those who ignore you?”:
- Show them care without pestering them.
- Treat them roughly till they get the point and stop acting like a jerk.
- They don’t matter. Ignore them back.
- Pester them with attention.
These answers to the focusing question are called experiments in living. It’s the way your character chooses to act in regards to the theme. It’s them taking their personal philosophy and making their own life the guinea pig of that philosophy. We assign one of these to our protagonist, then move on to the other characters.
Why the other characters? Because we need to explore the theme from more than just one angle. Applying different philosophies to other characters allows us to show the reader how how some experiments in living work and others don’t. These different philosophies also add depth and complexity to the cast.
And now we move on to step 3. Contrary to popular belief, a message is good for your story because it ties together the theme. Only when messages are on the nose do they stink like rotten potatoes. Step three of the parable strategy allows us to deliver a message in a very natural, refreshing way. Take a look again at the four experiments in living listed above. Wouldn’t they all lead to different outcomes? Wouldn’t some outcomes be better than others?
To tie together your theme, all you have to do is let cause and effect work its magic. Let good experiments in living lead to satisfying outcomes and bad experiments in living lead to unsatisfying outcomes. At the same time, restrain yourself with a healthy dose of realism. Often, a satisfying outcome is only reached through great sacrifice and an unsatisfying ending doesn’t always mean absolute, 100% failure.
Now you’ve learned the basics of theme. I won’t lie and tell you these simple techniques will make you the next Dostoevsky. There’s more to it than that. Still, you should never tell yourself you don’t have what it takes to write a story with a great theme. Such a feat is well within your grasp.
Hopefully this tutorial has broadened your understanding of theme and how it can work. It takes practice to become adept at incorporating theme into stories, and now you have the tools to get started. Take heart, because writing a story with a great theme is now a feat within your grasp.
When Daeus was fourteen, he did something that was definitely not recommended for the faint of heart. He wrote a story. This dangerous expedition developed in him an addiction to storytelling. Since then, he may or may not have visited numerous doctors, all of whom have announced his case hopeless. Current symptoms include: locking himself in a room for hours to write, a heightened consumption of raspberries and chocolate, and becoming a psychopathic stalker of his Kindle. If you’re brave enough to check out some of Daeus’s endeavors, pick up a free copy of his book The Golden Ziggurat and take a peek at his online writing school.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Thanks for the piece on theme. My writing will be the richer for it.
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
A very easy to follow explanation–thanks so much. 🙂
Eric M. Runesson says
Thank you. Brief and useful.
Victoria Marie Lees says
Great advice here, Daeus Lamb. Thank you so much for the clear explanation and examples to achieving it in my writing. I’ve shared this post online and have connected with you and signed up to receive your free book. Looking forward to reading it and finding the themes.
Finding themes in stories is really fun. 😉
Hope you’ll have a smooth and rewarding ride implementing theme in your own story!