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May 26, 2011

Do Stories Need a Theme?

Disney's California Adventure theme park

Earlier this week, Julie Musil had a great post about how to create story endings that resonate.  I almost wrote an epic comment to her post, but decided to save my wordiness for here.  And I get to use one of my vacation pictures—Disney’s California Adventure theme park, get it?  *snicker*

To answer the question in this post’s title, no, stories don’t need to have a theme.  But a story without one is like empty calories.  Junk food for the brain.

As Julie stated in her post:

We’ve all read them–stories that resonate with us long after we’ve closed the book. The main character lingers in our mind, and once we finish the book, we feel like we’ve lost a friend.

I think theme is a big part of what creates that effect.  A theme can elevate a story from a sequence of plot events—like a glorified synopsis, and a bad one at that—to an experience that has meaning to the reader.

As I noted in my abbreviated comment on Julie’s blog, one way to make a story ending resonate with readers is to have the final dialogue, summary, or description touch on the theme of the story.

How Do We Give Stories a Theme?

Okay, a theme is good to have.  How do we make sure our stories have one?  And what if we’re pantsers and don’t plan things out ahead of time?

Most stories have themes, even if we’re not consciously aware of them.  The real difference is how well they’re developed in the story.  So we can improve our stories by identifying our theme and making sure we’re using it well.

If we’re not sure what our theme is, we can look at our premise to try to find it.  Themes are often intertwined with a story’s premise.  In fact, these two terms are sometimes incorrectly used interchangeably.

Story Premise

Let’s look at an example inspired by Kristen Lamb’s post analyzing the plot structure of Finding Nemo.  The premise of Finding Nemo could be stated along the lines of:  A father’s love for his son pushes him past his fears.

If you’re familiar with the concept of a log line, the premise of a story is similar, but more high-level and generic.  The same premise can apply to several different stories.

The high-level aspect means that even pantsers probably 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.

Finding Our Theme

Now take that same premise for Finding Nemo and make it even more generic:  Love is stronger than fear.  Our theme is hiding in that statement, do you see it?

A high-level premise is made up of theme and an implied conflict and ending.  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).

So if Premise = Theme + Implied Conflict + Implied Ending, where is the theme in those five words?  Love is strong.  Bingo.  Similarly, the themes of the other examples above might be: love is worth believing in, self-confidence is good, and the world is worth saving.

How Can We Use Themes in Our Writing?

Now that we have a theme, what should we do with it?

Make the whole story resonate with that message by using some of these ideas:

  • Have the antagonist’s beliefs be an opposite or twisted version of the theme. “Love is strong” turns into “love is weak” or “love can be forced.”
  • Make the character’s emotional arc be learning to trust the theme during the course of the story.
  • Show the protagonist’s current attitude toward the theme in the “normal world” scenes at the beginning of the story.
  • Reflect the theme with the inciting incident in some way.
  • Echo the theme in the choices the protagonist faces.
  • Show the protagonist losing faith in the theme during the black moment near the end of the story.
  • Demonstrate the truth of the theme with the climax.

If we’ve implemented some of those ideas, our theme intertwines with the story.  Then when we end our story with beautiful prose, emotional dialogue, stunning descriptions, or an insightful summary—and that ending touches on the theme in some way—the reader will feel the whole story resonating with meaning.

How much do you notice themes when you read?  Do you consciously add theme echoes to your writing?  Do your themes come out during drafting, or do you only see them later?  Have you ever had problems with the “wrong” theme coming out in your stories?  (This article by Alicia Rasley might help with theme problems.)

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What do you think?

49 Comments on "Do Stories Need a Theme?"

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Katja
Katja

Great post again.

Theme is one of the things I’m struggling with and tbh I don’t really give it that much thought. I once read a post about how the theme in a movie is easily spotted within the early minutes by something some character said, and I’ve wondered if that’s true in books also.

Carradee

I have 2 WiPs that’re shelved until I have the skill to manage the themes I want with the stories, because they will be difficult to pull off successfully. The stories naturally incline themselves to other themes, to the point that I’m sure some readers will misinterpret ’em anyway.

Thing is, I’m very bad at parsing something down to a single theme. I’m too detail-oriented, I think. But I do decide what goal I want to accomplish with a story, what I want readers to get out of it, and what tone I want it to have overall.

I had one WiP start going way off-base, but I realized quickly that it had gotten too horrific, backed up to where it went wrong, and restarted. Nothing was bad about those horrific scenes, per se — I had some great lines in there — but it wasn’t the story I wanted to write.

It may not be a theme, but having an idea of what type of story you want to tell really helps.

Lisa Gail Green

What a fabulous post Jami!! My themes typically are subconscious on the first round. But yes, we should flush them out during revisions, I absolutely agree.

Julie Musil

Wow, what an amazing post. I love the idea of the antagonist’s beliefs being opposite of the theme. Instant conflict. I don’t think of theme right away, but I do notice that my stories are subconsciously guided by theme, and then I try to work with it in revision. It’s definitely something I can improve upon. Thanks for the shout out 😀

PW Creighton

Exceptional break down on themes Jami! in every narrative there is a themes hidden in the premise even if it wasn’t a conscious decision on the authors part. You did a great job analyzing the meta level meta writing.

Suzi McGowen

For pantsers: Stephen King said that he doesn’t have a theme when writes his first draft, but he discovers the theme when he’s in revisions. He can then tighten scenes based on the theme he didn’t know was there when he wrote it 🙂

Irene Vernardis
Irene Vernardis

Great analysis Jami 🙂

I think that the antagonist’s beliefs could be also the theme, not necessarily the opposition to it. That could provide an interesting plot to prove the counter-argument.

I liked PW’s notion of meta level of writing. 😀

Thank you for the interesting post 🙂

Laura Pauling

Just lately I’ve begun to make the connection between theme and the internal conflict. So now, in revision I go out of my way to make it prevalant! Great post, Jami!

Patty Blount

Oooo, lots to think about here. Great post and I can’t wait to go home and apply it to my WIP.

Susan Kaye Quinn

I love themes, in fact it’s the first thing I think of (possibly after the hook). What is this book about?? It’s the thing that gets me jazzed to write.

Great post!

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

Recently in a panel at a con, we started discussing the existence of multiple themes in a story. This also lead to a discussion on career or at least story spanning themes.
An author may consciously or unconsciously have a life-long theme of, say, “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” (Well, in the case of vampires and Obi-wan Kenobi, that which does kill me makes me stronger.)

They may seek a theme of “trust” in a given story, and between those two, the execution may be about a group of people who learn to rely and trust each other through adversity, hence becoming stronger.

This is actually the case in my current writing, I’m finding.

Susan Sipal

As always, Jami, your posts resonate with me! I think we share similar themes. 🙂

In my writing, if I don’t start with a theme or premise, I will develop one as soon as possible because the theme is the hub of the story for me around which the characters, plot, and setting will revolve. So any time I get stuck, I will go back to my theme and let that guide my choices.

I love your bit about having the MC lose faith in the theme at the black moment. Never seen it that clearly defined before!

Patrick Thunstrom

My themes always to grow as an extension of the characters and their goals or ambitions. For example, the story I’m working on now it focuses on leadership in many forms, from subversive leaders, to noble, if short sighted ones, to one who’s doing things to help himself that happen to help those around him.

It’s becoming more and more interesting as I explore during my outlining.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

I’m so glad you posted this!
I’ve been struggling in locating the theme of my WIP. The idea of theme occured to me about a week and a half ago while I was reading another person’s blog post. The article was good, but it didn’t help me get any closer to discovering the theme of my story, or even clarifying just what theme is to begin with.
You, on the other hand, spelled it out for me. Your examples helped immensely!!
Thank you, thank you!!!
The article by Alicia Racely you provided is a gem too.
You’re a peach, Jami:)
Have a great weekend,
Tamara

Kait Nolan

What a great post! I very seldom think of theme on the front end. I think I was scarred in high school English classes being forced to analyze stories I might otherwise have actually liked within an inch of their lives. So I often think I have a sort of blindness to it. But my CP is fantastic at it, and can usually take one look at what I’m doing and say “Oh it’s blah”. At which point I then go through and do all the things you mentioned, to play it up on purpose.

Terrell Mims
Terrell Mims

I love this blog. As I am in the plotting stage of my WIP, I am clear on the theme, but this blog drove it home. Thanks.

Ruth

Excellent post! I’ve bookmarked this to ponder more later.

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[…] Do stories need a theme? by the talented Jami Gold […]

Sonia G Medeiros

*claps hands* *stomps feet* Love this! I struggled with the theme of my MIP in the beginning. Once I found it, things started falling into place storywise. When I go to do another rewrite, I’ll see how well the theme is worked in though.

Ruth Ellen Parlour
Ruth Ellen Parlour

This is a really great article! Themes are often something I overlook when writing but it seems to come through in the drafting – I just don’t realise it until I have to!

I’ll definitely try out the tips you suggested. Thank you!

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[…] 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 […]

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