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February 27, 2018

Writing Craft Master Lists: Filling in the Blanks—Theme Development

Pen poised to write on a blank page with text: Filling in the Blanks of Our Writing Knowledge

A few weeks ago, I shared my series of huge mega-posts listing every writing craft skill I could think of for story development, line editing, and copy editing.

My goal is to give us a list we can use for learning:

Important stuff, right? *smile* But this project isn’t quite over yet.

Soon, I’ll offer those lists as downloadable checklists for everyone so we can easily keep track of our progress in learning skills. (Those lists are super-overwhelming, but we could consider each checkmark a victory!) Before I take that step, however, I want to make sure these lists are as complete as possible.

Help Me Complete These Lists for a Chance to Win!

To make these lists as “ultimate” and “master” as possible, I need your help:

  • Are any skills missing from my lists?
  • Or do any need more explanation?

If so, let me know so we can create this resource together. *smile*

To show my appreciation for your help, I’m currently running a giveaway to give those who help spread the word or offer improvement suggestions a chance to win some of the most-helpful books for writers: the various Thesaurus books by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi. Woo hoo!

As I said in the List posts, I’m just one brain, and everyone needs feedback, so I appreciate any suggestions you have. The more eyes looking for improvements to make, the better. *grin*

Filling in the Blanks: Developing Our Themes

I also appreciate questions about any skills listed, as I’m always looking for post ideas, and I want these lists to be as helpful as possible. In part one of this attempt to “fill in the blanks,” I used a question from June Randolph as an opportunity to explain participle phrases, a skill on the Copy Editing Master List.

Today, I’m addressing another question from June, this one on themes, a skill on the Story Development Master List:

“Do you have a link with many examples of themes? I had a hard time at first identifying what my themes were. Or, rather, the dry “war versus peace” kind of things I came up were not particularly useful.”

That’s a great question because theme is one of those concepts that can be hard to understand. We probably all learned in school that theme is a story’s “message”—the ideas that readers are supposed to take away from the story—but even that definition doesn’t clarify the answer enough.

In the Story Development Master List, we have the following bullet point under the section Develop Themes:

  • decide on appropriate themes for story and genre/reader expectations

Let’s see if we can explain that process a bit…

Where Do We Start When Developing Themes?

There’s no right answer to how or where we start developing a theme.

  • Some of us (especially if we write by the seat of our pants) might not be consciously aware of our theme until we finish drafting and dig into the revision process.
  • Some of us will know our themes before we start writing and be able to weave theme-related threads throughout the story during the drafting process.
  • Or we could fall anywhere between those extremes.

At some point, however, if we want to make our themes as strong as possible (and ensure we’re not accidentally undercutting our message with unintentional themes), we’ll want to consciously identify our themes.

But how can we do that if we have only the vaguest idea of what themes are?

Recognizing the Many Types of Themes

First, we need to understand that there’s usually more than one theme in our story. We can usually find the main themes by analyzing how things change over the story or what impression we’re giving to readers (our theme’s message).

  • Story Themes: What is the premise of the story? Who’s supposed to win or lose—and why?
    Making Our Case: Story Themes aim to convince readers by presenting a premise and resolution that match the values and beliefs of the worldview.
  • Choices Themes: What choices are the characters making? Do the results match the Story or Character Themes (choices that agree with the themes should succeed and vice versa)?
    Making Our Case: Choices Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story or Character Themes.
  • Villain Themes: What are the villain’s beliefs? Are they reinforced or disproved by plot events?
    Making Our Case: Villain Themes aim to convince readers by presenting evidence that reinforces Story or Character Themes.

Figuring Out Our Themes

June first thought about the type of story she had to determine what themes might fit. (Here’s a good list of different approaches to identifying our big-picture story.) She came up with “Dude(tte) with a Problem.”

Then she started thinking of common themes. Here’s a couple of resources with “dry” lists of themes:

But as she noted in her question, lists like that might simply state something like “war vs. peace,” “coming of age, “love,” or “survival.” Okay… What about those things?

That’s when we have to figure out what we’re trying to say about that topic.

Example: Exploring a Theme about Survival

Let’s take survival and see how we could develop several different themes from that starting point. In the story itself, the exploration of survival would be the actual theme.

For example, our story’s theme might be the exploration of or our answer to any of these questions:

  • How far are we willing to go to survive?
  • Are we willing to hurt others to survive?
  • What gives us the strength to survive?
  • What does it mean to survive?
  • When is survival not worth it?
  • What would make us give up the drive to survive?
  • What’s the cost of survival? (etc., etc.)

Those all have something to say about survival. That’s our message, our theme.

Example: Developing a Theme about Survival

Now let’s take “What gives us the strength to survive?” and see how we could develop that exploration in our story.

For example, in a story about a teen heroine trying to survive after her school bus crashes in a ravine during a snowstorm (a “man vs. nature” story) and who gains strength from her love for her younger brother, we might…

  • open with a scene showing our character’s normal world and include a reference to what will give them strength later.
    She ruffled her little brother’s hair. Even though he interfered with her social life far too often, she still couldn’t deny she loved the pest.
  • come up with an Inciting Incident where our character makes a choice to prioritize what gives them strength.
    She stepped between the bully and her brother. Yeah, there’d be hell to pay later, but no one got to pick on her brother but her.
  • use the first plot point (at the 25% mark) to make our character face a choice that causes them to dismiss what will give them strength later.
    “I know I promised I’d be there for all your games, but this is just one time. I’ve been saving up to go on this skiing trip with my class for months.”
  • use the Midpoint to show our character reprioritizing what gives them strength.
    Guilt wound through her limbs, slowing down each of her steps through the knee-high snow. Given the crummy circumstances, the selfishness of her choice to ignore her promise to her brother as soon as it was inconvenient stood out brighter than the snow-white sun glare blinding her eyes.
  • use the Black Moment to doubt their strength and reflect on their loss.
    She collapsed, her legs too numb to hold her weight. She’d die out here. The sun had dipped below the horizon only a few short hours ago, so the temperature still had a long way to fall. She’d freeze to death long before morning came, and she’d never get to apologize to her brother.
  • use their strength to rally past the Black Moment and into the Climax.
    She struggled to stand. The cold hadn’t beaten her yet. She wouldn’t give up. Not for as long as she had the stubborn idea to hug her brother one last time.
  • show the character reconnecting with the object of their strength in the Resolution.
    She gingerly lifted her bandaged hand off the hospital mattress and stroked her brother’s cheek. “Hey. Guess I should have gone to your game after all, huh?”

Of course all that is just one of a bajillion different ways we could explore the idea of “What gives us the strength to survive?” There’s no one single answer to that question, as our answer will depend on our worldview, our story, and our characters.

How can we develop our theme throughout our story? Click To TweetIn this particular example, the exploration leads to the answer or message of “Love gives us the strength to survive.” That would be our theme.

But note how it takes only a few sentences to establish a theme and layer it throughout our story. We don’t need paragraphs and paragraphs of navel gazing from our characters to get across our message.

That’s why it’s okay if we don’t discover our themes until the revision process. It won’t take much work to strengthen the themes we want to bring out in our story.

(Here’s a similarly developed example of exploring a theme of “only through trusting others can we succeed” in a romance story.)

Weaving a Theme Throughout a Story

The above example shows some of the different ways we can tie the theme to the plot, characters, and story:

  • initial reference to establish
  • showing a priority
  • experimenting with an alternate viewpoint/approach (and it not going well)
  • renewing a belief
  • doubting a belief (like at the Black Moment)
  • recognizing the consequences of failure
  • rallying after the Black Moment
  • re-establishing at the end

In addition, we could also…:

  • 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.
  • echo the theme in the choices the protagonist faces.
  • give the hero and heroine similar themes for their emotional arcs in a romance.
  • use conflict to force characters to grow past discomfort or disbelief of the theme over the course of the story.

And I’m sure there are plenty of other options I can’t think of off the the top of my head. Each of those types of themes above (Story, Character, Plot, Choices, Villian, and Genre) could use different approaches, as how we develop a theme in a character’s emotional arc might be different from how we develop a theme throughout the plot.

Mixing and Matching to Avoid Repetition

No matter the type of theme, we’d usually want to develop our story’s themes in a variety of ways. Using several different approaches to tie our themes to the story, plot, and characters will ensure we’re not being repetitive.

In other words, if every time we alluded to our story’s theme, it was in the context of showing something being a priority, the idea behind the theme would start to feel repetitive. Readers might get bored or frustrated: “Yeah, yeah, I know this already.”

Imagine our example story with every choice reflecting her thoughts along the lines of: Her brother was so important to her. She’d do anything for him. That would get old fast.

Instead, we want to use different approaches like prioritizing, dismissing, doubting, renewing, echoing, twisting, learning, trusting, growing, etc. By mixing and matching, we’re keeping each reference to the theme fresh and different, and we’re able to fully develop a theme over the course of a story. *smile*

Can you think of any improvements to the Master Lists? Have you entered my giveaway yet? Do you have questions or need more explanation for any of the skills? Do the examples here help you understand how to develop themes? Can you think of other approaches to developing a theme we could add to the examples above?

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[…] decide on appropriate themes for story and genre/reader expectations […]

dolorah at Book Lover

This is a good guideline. I’ll be saving it to bookmarks to refer back to. I have a lot of trouble with themes; usually finding them along the way as I “pants” my way through. I usually know the end, and that helps create character and story plots.

Thanks Jami.

dwane knott

I am writing pantser and hadn’t considered I might have a theme. Reading this post, I spent a few minutes ruminating about my story. I am comfortable there is rudimentary character theme which I need to develop as I edit the w-i-p.
Great article and timely for me.

June
June

Thank you. This post explains a lot. Better yet, it shows me how to get from here to there. A lot of writing advice I have read in various places is aspirational only because I can’t figure out how to use it. This post gives me the means to figure out a useful theme.

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[…] Theme creates depth to your story. Amber Lea Starfire shows how to discover your memoir’s underlying themes, Kristen Lamb examines how the collision of powerful ideas makes superior stories, and Jami Gold examines theme development in your fiction. […]

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[…] part two, we took another question from June, this one on how to figure out and develop our themes, a skill on the Story Development Master […]

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[…] theme (story level and character level, what changes or what they learn, etc.) […]

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