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December 18, 2014

What Creates a Story’s Theme?

Scattered puzzled pieces with text: What Story Elements Create a Theme?

Many stories that stick with us over time resonate with some aspect of our life, belief, or worldview. Often, the theme of the story creates that resonance.

If we agree with the theme of the story, we’re likely to love the message conveyed between the covers. If we don’t agree with the theme of the story, we might still appreciate the opportunity to examine our beliefs or enjoy the challenge of finding something relatable within the pages. Either way, themes can make us think more deeply about a story.

But theme is also tricky to write. We might have a hard time defining it and an even more difficult time incorporating theme into our stories. Worse, it’s frustratingly easy to include unintended themes.

So we need some tips to help us understand what creates a story’s theme. With that information, we might be able to improve the themes of our stories and write something that will resonate more strongly with readers.

What Is a Theme?

We probably all learned in school that theme is a story’s “message”—the ideas that a reader is supposed to take away from the story. However, one thing that many teachers don’t emphasize is that a story can (and probably will) have multiple themes. (So those teachers who marked us wrong for pointing out the theme we saw instead of the theme they saw? Yeah, they were full of it. *smile*)

Most themes are revealed through subtext, which doesn’t help with our understanding or identification of them. But we can usually find the main themes by analyzing how things change over the story. How does the situation change, and how do the characters change? Let’s take a closer look…

Theme Element #1: The Story’s Premise

As I’ve posted about before, themes are often intertwined with a story’s premise. A premise is usually very high level and somewhat generic. For example, the premise of Finding Nemo could be stated along the lines of: A father’s love for his son pushes him past his fears.

The high-level aspect means that even pantsers might have a basic idea of the premise of their story:

  • A woman struggles to believe in love.
  • A boy learns to trust himself.
  • A team races to save the world.

Now take that same premise for Finding Nemo and make it even more generic: Love is stronger than fear. Based off just five words—love is stronger than fear—we’d expect a story where a character has to face their fears (implied conflict) and win (implied ending).

More importantly for our goals today, that generic line is a theme. Or we could go even more generic by taking out the implied conflict and ending: Love is strong.

Similarly, the themes of the other examples above might be:

  • Love is worth believing in.
  • Self-confidence is good.
  • The world is worth saving.

So one aspect of theme is the premise of the story. The story theme comes from knowing who’s supposed to win or lose—and why.

Theme Element #2: The Protagonist’s Arc

Another major theme element is created by how the character changes over the course of the story. What does the character learn?

This type of theme is essentially trying to convince readers to consider another view of the world: what to value, what to believe, what to aim for, etc. And we make our case by presenting a character who learns the lesson for them.

If we show a character who’s miserable when they believe people are awful and they learn that others can help them become happy and fulfilled, the reader learns right along with the character. The character theme would be the lesson: Humanity has the potential to be helpful (and good).

  • If we’re writing a positive character arc story, our protagonist would usually start with a false belief, and over the course of the story, they’d learn they were wrong, like in the example above.
  • In a flat character arc story, our protagonist would know a truth that could be simplified into a high-level theme (Hard work yields results), and they’d work to share that truth with the world.
  • In a negative arc story, our protagonist might have a tragic ending in several ways. For our purposes here, we can simplify the theme aspect to two possibilities: their negative belief (People suck) would be proven true, or their positive belief (People don’t suck) would be proven false.

As an example, let’s take a look at how a theme involving trust, such as “only through trusting others can we succeed,” could play out over a romance story’s turning points:

  • The Inciting Incident introduces the heroine to the hero, and boy, she does not trust him, or anyone for that matter.
  • At the End of the Beginning (First Plot Point), she has to work with him, and her distrust causes conflict that prevents them from making progress toward the story goal.
  • The Pinch Points make her trust him about minor things, forcing her out of her comfort zone.
  • At the Midpoint, the hero calls her out on her trust issues and points out how they’re doomed to fail because of it.
  • In the Crisis of the Black Moment, she has an epiphany about her trust issues, but now it’s too late to fix things.
  • The stakes of the Climax rip her comfort zone to shreds and she takes a leap of faith, which involves trust in some way, to overcome the conflict.
  • In the Resolution, we see her interacting with the hero (and maybe with others) with her new-found trust on display.

Note that in stories with multiple protagonists, such as romances, each main character would have an arc and thus have a theme.

Theme Element #3: The Plot Events

The first two elements are themes that we often consciously develop in the story, but now we’re going to talk about some elements that are too frequently responsible for unintended themes, simply because we might not be as aware of how these aspects create a message.

For the first of these, we want to look at the plot events, especially the turning points. What things do the characters attempt—do they succeed or fail? More importantly, why do they succeed or fail?

For example, let’s say we’re trying to develop a story theme of: Friends help us through tough situations. We’d want to look at the difficult plot events the protagonist faces.

When they succeed, is it due to their friends’ help? When they fail, is it because their friends weren’t there to help them?

If our story included plot events where the character failed, even with their friends’ help, we might be creating an unintentional theme of: Luck helps us more than friends. So the success or failure during plot events can create a plot theme.

A plot theme should reinforce the story theme, either by being identical to the story theme or by playing nicely with the story theme. If these themes conflict, we’ll often create problems in our story theme.

Theme Element #4: The Protagonist’s Choices

Similar to above, we want to look at the choices the character makes and whether those choices lead to good or bad things for them.

  • Are they making choices that disagree with the story or character theme? Do they succeed anyway? Why?
  • Are they making choices that agree with the story or character theme? Do they fail anyway? Why?

We sometimes need characters to make choices that are the “right” thing to do, but that lead to failure despite their efforts. That’s often part of the definition of the Black Moment. Characters are trying to improve and learn, and then the rug is pulled out from under them.

If we’re not careful, that issue can create an unintended theme. Instead, we could ensure that 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.” After all, they still have 25% of the book left to learn more and get ready for the big demonstration of the lesson in the Climax. *smile*

So the choices they make during the story create a choices theme. Like the plot theme, this theme should reinforce the character and/or story theme, either by being identical or by playing nicely together. If the themes conflict, that’s when we’ll run into trouble.

For example, our character theme might be “embracing responsibility.” The choices the character faces might create a theme of “rising to our potential.” Those can work together: Taking responsibility allows us to rise to our potential.

On the other hand, if the choices the character makes have them guilting others into doing things for them—and the other characters never call them out on this, force them to change, or they never realize this is wrong and change their ways—we’d create an unintentional theme of: A good way to take responsibility is to get others to do our work for us.

Theme Element #5: The Villain

Just like with our protagonist, if our antagonist is a person (rather than a force of nature, a culture’s rules, etc.), they’ll also have beliefs and might go through a positive, negative, or flat arc. How their beliefs are reinforced or disproved by the plot events create a villain theme.

Do they believe the opposite of the protagonist?  Or is their belief a twisted version of the protagonist’s beliefs (“Love can be forced”)? Do their beliefs bring them success before they fail? Why?

We might create an unintentional theme by showing that the villain’s beliefs work for them up until the end. Why would their beliefs work earlier and not later? Just luck? If so, we’re creating an unintended theme of luck being more important than our beliefs.

A safer way to use the villain when developing themes is to create more “evidence” related to the protagonist’s belief. Sometimes the antagonist is the antagonist simply because they don’t learn the lesson, and their failure can demonstrate the perils of false beliefs. Other times the villain can find redemption by learning the lesson too, which bolsters the protagonist’s experience. Either possibility reinforces the theme.

Fixing a Broken Theme

All together, these elements (and probably more that I can’t think of off the top of my head) build themes in our readers’ impressions. If we build our themes well, our whole story will resonate with our message. If we don’t, readers might be left with the opposite impression than we intended.

Broken themes are fixable. First, we need to discover what’s creating that 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 our themes conflict?
  • Do minor characters tell one theme but character actions show another?
  • Etc., etc.

Then, we need to clarify what theme we want and what needs to change to get our story there. Broken themes can seem overwhelming to fix. Themes lurk in the subtext, and they emerge from the big picture, the way plot events and character reactions add up over the entire book. So a broken theme implies that the whole story might be “off.”

But more often than not, we simply need to identify what’s creating the wrong impression. It might even be just one scene, one reaction, one description. And if we find that one thing, tweaking it can be enough to fix the theme for the whole story.

This is yet another area where beta readers, critique partners, or editors are invaluable. They can help us find those details creating the wrong impression. Just like plot events, reader impressions are based on cause and effect, so if we find and change the cause, we change and fix the effect.

The better we can make our themes play together, the stronger our message will be. And as stronger themes often resonate more with readers, they’ll remember our story and be eagerly awaiting our next book. *smile*

Do you have trouble identifying your stories themes? Will this list help know where to look for them? Can you think of other elements that create themes? Have you ever accidentally created an unintended theme? How did you fix it?

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28 Comments on "What Creates a Story’s Theme?"

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Lynette Mirie
Lynette Mirie

This Story Theme post comes at just the right time for me. It contains useful information as I dive into another rewrite of my MG novel. Thanks for the help!

Emerald O'Brien
Emerald O'Brien

Hi Jami!
Great post. I usually write within the mystery genre, and I think two of the more general themes you find often with mysteries are the search for truth and saftey.
Beyond that, you make great points of things that contribute to these themes, and I find the contributing factors are what can make a mystery unique.

Jan
Jan

Thanks Jami, I tend to find my themes through the writing, but I have always felt that they should be stronger, what am I trying to say, what does this story mean. I have been focusing on one story theme to be the central meaning, and have felt like a squirrel spinning an acorn, oh look at this side and this one, and the characters and plot say, hey over here, look at all the pretty tops we have for your acorn. Much better, Jami, your have shinned my acorn and dressed it up!

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Hey Jami, Hmm I can think of “World Building Theme” or “Story World Theme.” For two of my stories so far, the story worlds are such that natural talents really do not exist, so it’s all about training, the age at which you start, how productive/ effective your training is, etc. I.e. the theme is “amazing skill and ability is all due to productive practice.” So it’s both about A LOT of practice, but it also has to be productive, efficient, effective practice to count. Of course many skeptics would still believe natural talent exists (most people do, I’m the minority who don’t), but this rule in my story world still reinforces the extreme importance of intense, productive training in producing great ability. There could be character theme too. It’s not the same as character arc theme, however. It’s showing that because a character followed or practiced such a principle, or had a certain belief, they are successful in a certain aspect. They don’t achieve this success over the course of the story, though; they already achieved the success before the beginning of the book. E.g. the hero of my story is one of the strongest (best, most skilled) fighters within his generation. This is because not only did he start learning how to fight since he was 3 (actually I think it was two, but it was just play before three), and that he practices everyday and does extra practice outside of class; he also figured out how to… Read more »
Carradee

I’m still not really consciously aware of my themes, but I’ve realized my overarching one: Everyone’s crazy somehow; some people just hide it better than others.

Deborah Makarios

And I thought learning to drive was complicated 🙂
But I think with time we learn to do at least some of this subconsciously (phew!) as we read and write and learn “how stories go.” After all, you don’t need a working knowledge of anatomy to know your knee shouldn’t be bulging sideways like that…

Sharla Rae

As usual Jami you’ve explained the intricate points in a very comprehensive manner. Thank you.

Lara Gallin
Lara Gallin

It’s funny you should say about people seeing different things because I had this happen over the weekend. I got round to watching the last two episodes of The Leftovers and I noticed an element that could provide an answer, or at least a partial answer to the mystery. I’ve had a look and I haven’t seen anyone mention it about the show and I’ve read through a lot of the reviews on Goodreads and I couldn’t see anyone bring it up there either (there may have been someone but there are 100 pages and I just couldn’t read them all!)

My first thought has been that I must be mistaken in my interpretation otherwise more people would be thinking along the same lines but you’ve made me feel a little better about it!

My WIP is very much one that’s open to interpretation and I’m sure people will hate me for it!

Robin
Robin

I think the overarching theme of my WIP is that
expectations shape outcomes…
this ties together with the idea that each person will act according to his own nature, so if you are expecting (assuming) that someone else is acting from the motivations you would have, you will be Wrong Wrong Wrong! Muahahaha…

thanks for another lovely post Jami 🙂

ferris
ferris

Thanks, Jami! Once again, you’ve been very helpful with your explanation and post. Most appreciated!

J'aime Wells
J'aime Wells

Jami, thanks! I’m a new reader of your blog, and this is very helpful. I’ve been struggling with a subplot – I can’t figure out whether it should be cut or not. It doesn’t seem to connect to the main story very well, but I have a feeling it belongs in the book. Maybe what I need to do is get clearer on the main story’s theme, and then find a way for the subplot to reinforce or compliment the theme, and then the subplot will feel like a natural fit. 🙂 I have some thinking to do…

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[…] Here’s just one example I posted before about how we could develop a theme of trust over the turning points of a story: […]

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