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What is Theme?


The theme is the central controlling idea of your story. It’s why you decided to write it. And that’s why it’s so personal to a writer.

Suppose you wanted to write about peace, or love, or vengeance. All three are universal themes, but they’re also pretty superficial. You have to dig deeper. Are you actually passionate about living in that world for months? Do you have experience with the subject? How does this subject speak to your soul? How will your unique perspective make the story different?

The theme is the reason the main character takes up the quest for peace, or love, or vengeance. Why do they do it? Extrapolate out how your story addresses the theme. For example, the movie The Revenant was a story about a man who wanted vengeance. But the theme unique to this story is this: How far would a man go to avenge the death of his son? Watching or recalling it, can you see how the theme was woven into almost every scene?

Your main character needs to constantly be challenged by the theme. That’s the bones of your story. And only at the end of their journey do they fully understand the theme… they embrace it, and are rewarded for doing so.

So when writers complain about how difficult it is to write the second half of their story, I roll my eyes. At that point, your protagonist should be half-heartedly embracing the theme, and having the plan blow up in their face. Why? Because they haven’t fully embraced the theme. I just gave you the magic formula for a sequence that always works. You’re welcome.

Why do we incorporate themes into stories? Well, because it opens the biological floodgates of the soul at the end of your story.

Pick a universal theme, like love, vengeance, coming of age, father issues, mother issues, etc. Everyone can relate to universal themes, because they’re woven into the tapestry of the human experience. Then make the theme uniquely your own. What do you have to say about the subject? Tell the story honestly, incorporate your theme into every scene, and you’re well on your way to touching a reader’s soul.