Theme is a hot topic among writers. From elementary school to university courses, teachers ask students to identify the messages that literature tries to communicate. Writing blogs discuss how to incorporate and strengthen themes. And fans relish debating the major themes of popular novels and films. While all of these exercises can reap beneficial insights, the assumption behind each one is that the theme was in the forefront of the author’s mind from the first draft onward. But that’s not always the case.
A theme can change, or even emerge for the first time, at any point during a story’s development. Adding one sooner rather than later isn’t necessarily more effective either. Both methods have pros and cons. You could also skip including a theme altogether, but that’s not only careless, it’s nigh impossible—you’ll end up with one whether you planned it or not.
Are you wondering which strategy you should implement with your latest work-in-progress? Let me walk you through each one so you can make an informed decision.
1. The Foundational Approach
When you brainstorm a theme before fleshing out other aspects of your premise, it becomes the centerpiece. You consider it during every stage of the writing process and connect it to every detail. Often, when a theme defines a story’s purpose, an allegory is the result, but a theme-oriented story can take other forms as well. Even if you prioritize your theme more highly than entertainment or style, you can still balance all of the qualities an enjoyable story should display.
For instance, Jesus told parables to convey biblical truths, but he drew from scenarios that listeners would relate to and find engaging. As another example, in The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins wanted to explore the concept of justified war. However, even with that goal to guide her, the specific angle of her theme didn’t crystallize until after she immersed herself in plotting and characterization—which is similar to the organic approach I’m going to describe in my next point. That’s because the two frequently overlap.
The main advantage of the foundational approach is the clear meaning it gives a story. It does require more planning and forethought, however, which may be a drawback for pantsers. Doubling down on your theme also comes with the risk of preachiness. To avoid that problem, follow the “show, don’t tell” rule. Don’t explicitly state your theme in the narrative or dialogue. Instead, subtly expose it through your characters’ actions and experiences.
Once you’ve settled on a theme, jot down a list of all the values associated with it and how your story’s main plot points could threaten, challenge, or highlight each one. If you’re trying to emphasize the sanctity of life, the event might be the birth of a baby, a character’s miraculous survival of a traumatic accident, or even raw grief over the loss of a loved one to chronic illness. The idea is to reveal both the rewards and consequences of your theme so that readers understand why it’s significant.
Your theme should play a prominent role in your characters’ arcs too, forcing them to question their beliefs. If you place your theme at the core of their internal conflicts, you’ll have a number of opportunities to analyze both the right and the wrong answers. As the story progresses, any lies that your characters have been clinging to will get pushed to the surface and replaced by truth. These revelations are especially pivotal for your protagonist, since her choices and convictions determine the story’s trajectory.
2. The Organic Approach
Many writers have an idea for a story but aren’t sure what theme they should focus on. So, instead of spending hours (or days) straining to attach one, they start writing. As they interact with the characters and experiment with the plot, the theme and its branches grow from the soil of all the other content they’ve been tilling. Then, if necessary, they backtrack to prune and reshape any areas that aren’t yet conformed to the theme. The writers who prefer to cultivate their themes in this manner aren’t negligent—like pantsers versus plotters, they just have different habits that help them craft fiction.
As C. S. Lewis explains in his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said,” he allowed a theme to arise naturally for The Chronicles of Narnia instead of setting out to make everything heavily symbolic: “Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument, then collected information about child psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way. It all began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.”
When your theme appears while you’re writing instead of being tacked on at the beginning, it’s more likely to fit the story and be subtle. However, since you’ll have finished several scenes before your moment of discovery, you may need to do extra revisions. That’s the primary downside, but neglecting to devote any attention to your theme at all is another pitfall to be wary of.
Potential themes can crop up anywhere in your story: from big elements like worldbuilding and plot to small elements like an object the protagonist is sentimental about. Examine your characters and their thoughts especially closely, because their motivations and reactions may be revealing. What struggles do they face that you could broaden into universal themes?
To accentuate a theme that’s sprouted, refer back to the tactics I outlined at the end of the previous section and apply them to the scenes you’ve completed as well as those you’ve yet to type out. Since your theme is already integral to the story, endangering it further will make it even more apparent to readers.
3. The Directionless Approach
Sometimes writers design stories purely for entertainment and don’t consciously insert any themes. This isn’t necessarily wrong, since fun stories can be used as practice or to cheer up others. However, presuming that a story lacks a theme because the author didn’t assign it one is naïve.
My father, who is a pastor, says that every piece of media is a sermon. Readers pick up themes, regardless of the writer’s intentions, because our worldview has such a pervasive influence on our creative pursuits. You can see this by flicking on your favorite streaming service. People tend to view TV as mindless and meaningless, but every show, from children’s cartoons to suspenseful dramas, broadcasts messages through how the characters are portrayed, the behaviors that are praised, and the subjects that are addressed. The same will hold true for any story you write. Your values, opinions, and occasionally even your emotions will seep in with or without your consent.
Here at Story Embers, we encourage writers to be intentional, as the fifteen resolutions of our manifesto reflects. Since this third approach treats theme haphazardly, we can’t endorse it. Your story will likely contain a recognizable theme whether you weave one in or not, so you should invest effort into pinpointing and honing it.
Making Themes Impactful
After evaluating each of these approaches, you may be tempted to claim that one is better than the others, but success or failure ultimately hinges upon the skill of the writer and the needs of the story. Some stories won’t turn out well if you don’t commit to a theme at the outset (and vice versa).
Whichever approach you take, orchestrate your theme so that it resonates within your story and readers’ hearts. Will it glorify God and advance His kingdom? That’s the most important question. Regardless of how you handle themes, you should strive to create powerful stories. Even the most compelling themes will fall flat without a strong structure to support them.
Allison Raymond has been captivated by stories for as long as she can remember. She was only eleven years old when she came to recognize writing as God’s purpose for her life. Although many years have passed since that moment, she has never doubted this purpose. Instead, she chooses to spend her time working hard to make her dream of becoming a published novelist a reality.
Allison grew up in Virginia, Illinois, and Oklahoma. She now lives in Missouri, where she is attending college in pursuit of a degree in Secondary English Education. In the future, she hopes to become a high school English teacher to share her passion for storytelling with aspiring young writers. Currently, she shares this passion on her personal blog and in a large number of her daily conversations.