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“I’m waiting for inspiration to strike.”
It’s every writer’s fatal flaw and euphoric high. There’s nothing better than feeling your mind light up with a new character, idea, or scene. Sadly, even the greatest moments of inspiration won’t produce anything very meaningful if your story doesn’t have a theme. This guide explains more about understanding and picking themes for your stories and why they’re foundational to every story’s plotline.
What Is a Theme?
A theme is the heart of your story. It’s what drives the plot and character development.
Your theme answers the question—why are you writing this story?
Sometimes plot gets confused for themes, but they’re different, integral parts of any piece of writing.
Take the first novel in one of my favorite book series for example.
In Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Percy goes on a quest with his two friends to return Zeus’ stolen lightning bolt. The plot contains many hilarious, heartbreaking, and action-packed moments, but the central theme driving them is a journey to self-acceptance.
Because Percy goes on this adventure, he comes to peace with the numerous facets of his identity that he finds most difficult to accept—being a demigod, having ADHD, and living with dyslexia.
If Percy had no issues with any part of himself, the plot would be radically different. He also wouldn’t be a realistic representation of a young person! Teenagers (and adults) are always trying to formulate and come to peace with their identities. Self-acceptance is an evergreen, relatable theme.
Can Stories Have Multiple Themes?
Absolutely! Well-practiced writers can weave plots that expertly present and actively demonstrate multiple themes, both in novels and short stories. It’s not necessary to do this every time you write a story, but it can make your work more complex and impactful for readers. It also gives you more practice in understanding and picking themes for your stories.
Let’s go back to The Lightning Thief.
While I’d argue that self-acceptance is the overarching theme, the novel definitely has more than one. Here are a few others:
- The importance of honesty (demonstrated through characters choosing to lie, which creates negative consequences for themselves/others)
- The importance of friendship (making two best friends helps Percy learn to love himself, shapes his worldview, and makes it possible to complete his quest)
- The importance of family (shown through various characters struggling or succeeding with good or bad family dynamics)
You’ll figure out if your story should have more than one theme as you plan it or after jumping into it.
How to Pick a Theme
There are a few ways you can pick a theme for stories.
First—Find One You Want to Talk About
The first step in understanding and picking themes for your stories is finding one that matters to you.
One time, I wanted to write about the reality of grade school bullying and how it can affect a young kid or teen’s mental health. That helped me determine the characters, settings, and plot.
The theme centralized around bullying, which is a topic I care very deeply about. The level of care I have for it makes me treat the theme with more gravity and respect. Both of those elements come across to readers who also want to take the subject seriously (even when you’re writing comedic storylines or scenes).
Second—Spend Time With Your Ideas
Let characters or settings sit in the backseat of your mind for a while. As you get comfortable with them, you’ll decide which theme is most authentic to tell through them specifically.
When I felt inspired to write a story about cloned twin sisters, I grabbed a pen and started writing. After creating their personalities and world through writing the first chapter of what would become my first novel, it felt best to use my protagonist’s perspective as a clone to talk about why teenage identity is complex, yet intricately tied to their family.
Third—Pick Your Audience First
Thinking about which audience you want to write for will help narrow down your main theme and/or secondary themes.
A magazine that’s popular with people aged 30–60 will want to showcase very different themes than a publication meant for elementary school students.
Readers at different stages of life will have different interests. Both publishers may want a short story that covers the concept of friendship, but each story’s plot will have very different characters, settings, and challenges.
Research Potential Themes
If you still feel like it’s a struggle to decide what you’ll write about, it helps to research general themes. You might get inspired by an idea or reminded about a topic that’s close to your heart.
Universal themes are a great place to start. They include things like:
- Coming of age
- The inevitability of change
- Discovering love
- Healing from loss
- Seeking power over your life
These are great because everyone can relate to them on some level. Relatable themes make readers fall in love with stories and remember them long after they’ve read the final page.
Keep in mind that readers can also love or appreciate themes that aren’t things they’ve lived through. Sometimes themes teach people about the world or lived experiences outside of their own.
Consider negative universal themes for example, like:
- Preferring ignorance to understanding
- Prioritizing greed over everything else
- Using harsh judgment as a world-view lens
- Letting jealousy drive every decision
- Turning inward pain outwardly onto others
Themes like these would mostly affect an antagonist’s growth or that of an antihero. The reader doesn’t have to live like any of these ideas or have lived like them in the past to relate via people they have encountered.
Write About What Matters Most
The best theme for a writer is the one that most impacts them. It could be that you have so much to say about something or need to read a story with a theme you haven’t personally seen in books yet.
If you want to continue your deep dive into themes, here are some great resources:
- A much more extensive list of themes
- How to weave your theme into a plot
- Five examples of themes/how they work in popular literature
Try Understanding and Picking Themes More Effectively
Themes might seem tricky when you’re first thinking of them purposefully, but they’ll come naturally with time. Use these tips to understand and pick themes more effectively during your planning process and you’ll write stories that hook readers because they’ll have a central, relatable message.