Story planning and creation: Discover your theme

Story planning and creation: ThemeIt’s time to start thinking about theme.

Why?

Story themes are tricky beasts to corner, but integral to character choices and how the story unfolds and resolves.

Without a strong theme your story is just a series of escalating events which will soon be forgotten.

While we don’t have to pin a theme down right away, it helps to be open to any hidden gems we may have buried in our planning (or later, writing) phase.

Those gems will unify our story and give it meaning.

So what exactly is a story’s theme?

Most writers struggle with the concept, usually citing things like ‘love’, ‘hope,’ ‘loneliness,’ ‘loss,’ etc.

The problem is, while single words are often thematic, they’re not themselves a theme. They’re only expressions of a theme.

So how would you define a theme? Your theme is a statement or a question. Your story is its playground.

For example, your theme might be: “You can never truly be yourself around your family.” Your story would then debate that statement, with everything that goes on in the story contributing to the final answer.

And that’s where the power of a theme comes into play; it’s what gives your story real-life meaning and keeps readers thinking about it long after they’ve read it, even if they don’t have a clue what the theme actually is.

It’s probably the most understated, least understood, yet most powerful part of any story.

Take the song Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin (I love the Ugly Kid Joe version). Look it up on YouTube, Google the lyrics, buy it or stream it – whatever, but check out the lyrics and the question of theme should become clearer.

Cats in the Cradle is a story of regret – but regret is only an expression of the theme. Family features strongly, but family isn’t the theme either. Another expression. The story is about both those things, but it’s much more. Cats in the Cradle is a cautionary tale of missed opportunities and poor choices, and so a statement of theme would include those things.

In your own stories, your theme should influence everything your characters say and do, but don’t force a theme if you don’t already have one. Once the story’s drafted you can figure out the theme and if necessary go back and align story elements to it.

At the planning stage it’s simply about pointing the story in one possible direction; a question or statement you think you may want to explore. If the story’s not going where you want or expect, keep an eye out for a more compelling theme. It’ll appear naturally, so don’t try to force it.

Possible themes for this our dryad story run along the lines of:

  • Eternal youth is a curse, not a blessing.
  • Broken relationships can never be completely healed.
  • What’s truly important can never be stolen.
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • You must be true to who you are.

The theme we need to find is the one our protagonist carries. (For an ensemble cast the character most closely aligning with the theme represents your protagonist.)

What will this story’s theme eventually be? It’s not clear yet, but hopefully it’ll come out in the planning.

If you were to write a statement of theme for the song Cats in the Cradle, what would it be?

2 thoughts on “Story planning and creation: Discover your theme

  1. Hi Chris,

    The theme I’ve always attributed to Cats in the Cradle (also first hooked by the Ugly Kid Joe version!) was a pretty subtle, yet brutal version of ‘you reap what you sow’. This is a reasonably generic and simple theme, the way it was told that made it powerful. I think there are many great stories that hold a similar combo; a simple but strong theme, that supports complex and varied explorations thereof. I know in my writing, one of my biggest downfalls, resulting in way too many rabbit-hole situations, has been over complicating the theme and trying to bring it too much to the front of the writing. Tending to think that a simple theme has far more strength to give a story. Thoughts?

    • ‘You reap what you sow’ is a perfect theme for the song. And I agree it’s difficult to balance theme with story, but if you get it right you’ll produce something significantly better than most of what’s out there.

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