Step 4: Picking a Theme
While an interesting main plot or idea for the story is going to make it interesting to read, the truth is if you want your story to really have any depth, or be meaningful to readers, you’re going to need to find a theme for it as well. The theme, as your English teacher probably told your class more than once, is the message or lesson about life that the author is trying to communicate to the reader. It’s the “point” of the story, and works hand in hand with the Core Premise to guide the story toward a natural ending. This is another area where you are customizing a story and making it your own, and is an important one which shouldn’t be skipped.
As your teacher might also have taught you, there are two parts to theme: Thematic Idea and Thematic Statement. Simply put, the Thematic Idea is the general theme of the story (War, Love, Greed, etc) and the Thematic Statement is the actual point the writer is trying to make about the Thematic Idea. (War is bad, Love is bittersweet, Greed drives civilization, etc)
Your job, then, is to match your Core Premise up with a Thematic Statement that will bring out the best in your story and characters while still reflecting your own ideas.
So, first, take a look at your Core Premise again and think about possible themes it naturally suggests. If you can’t think of any, then take a look at this list of common themes and see if any of them will fit the story you’re trying to tell.
For example, let’s look at one of the Core Premises from the previous step:
A mousy college student working in a used bookstore must find a mysterious book when her co-workers are possessed by evil spirits that will escape the store at nightfall.
What are the possible themes that could work with this story?
- Finding confidence in yourself.
- The power of love.
- The power of knowledge.
- The power of friendship.
- Not giving up.
- Sins of the past returning.
Now, a story can have more than one theme, but it really should only have one main theme (thematic statement), which is the theme which truly drives the story forward. This idea is the lesson the writer is trying to teach the reader, and it will have a big influence on both the beginning of the story and its ending. Thus, in most stories, the character will start the story with their life in a bad place because they haven’t accepted the truth which is behind theme of the story.
For example, if the main theme of the above story is “you need to have confidence to succeed,” then the main character will start the story with no confidence and her life will be hard because of it. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then the main character’s secret love for her co-worker will be making her miserable and causing problems in her life and relationships. Or, if the story is about “the sins of the past”, the bookstore will be a gloomy place with few customers because a strange dark feeling hangs over the place which is preventing the people there from being truly happy.
Then, the theme of a story will also tell you how it should end because the end of the story has to be one which reinforces that theme or idea and proves it’s the right one. This gives the lesson the writer is trying to prove, and only by accepting that “truth” can the main character solve the problem established in the beginning and find a happy new life.
Thus, if the main theme of the story is “you need to have confidence to succeed”, then it will be about a character who is forced to find confidence to save the day and win. If the story is about “love conquers all,” then it will be about how the main character’s secret love for her co-worker is the key to defeating the evil spirits and her confession of love solves the problem (and her own life issues). Or, if the story is about the “sins of the past,” then the story might play as a mystery where the main character needs to learn whose misdeeds caused this situation, and finding justice will stop the curse and leave the bookstore a happier place.
So, as you can see, the theme of a story can have a strong influence over its plot, setting, characters, presentation, tone and so much more. In fact, it is often the glue which holds the story together, and should be carefully considered. However, if you find yourself getting stuck on trying to come up with a theme (a common problem for writers) then the most likely reason is you’re making your life harder than you need to. Most genres (and subgenres) have classic themes that are already attached to them and commonly used, and all you need to do is go look carefully back at the themes of some of your favorite stories to find one which interests you or moves you. Then, if you want to be a little different, try making a small twist on that usual theme.
For example, in a Romance story, a common theme is “A woman needs a strong man, and a man needs a smart woman.” But, you might take that theme and play with it, making it into something like “Man needs a strong woman, and a woman needs a smart man.” This could produce a different story than the usual, and could provide the audience with something they don’t see very often.
The important part is taking a general thematic idea (like friendship, peace, revenge) and then turning it into a clear thematic statement which gives your story a direction and goal. Just leaving it as a general idea is asking for trouble and a lot of rewriting down the line as you try to find a theme from a direction-less story.
Once you have your story’s clear main theme, write it down on your worksheet and let’s start developing some characters!