Robert Wise, the American film director of The Sound of Music, states, “You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.”
Between the lines. Did you catch that? You need to write with a theme in mind, because it’s the center, the start, the heart from which the rest of a story grows. Without it, you’ll have trouble tying all your characters and events together. But, as essential as theme is, you shouldn’t directly mention it within your narrative.
One of the downloadable worksheets here at Story Embers defines theme as “the broad moral topic or idea that your story addresses.” In general, you should be able to capture it with a single word, such as love, peace, kindness, courage, gratitude, or hope. If your manuscript is crafted well, anyone who picks it up will find clues in the title, word choices, plot, and symbolism to help them recognize the underlying meaning.
But developing a relevant theme can be intimidating. How do you weave it into your novel in a way that’s both natural and impactful? And how can you ensure it stays with readers after they close the cover? If I don’t know which direction to take with a new project, I try to set off a brainstorm through three different exercises.
1. Train with a Theme List
When I began to pursue writing seriously, I submitted short stories to Pockets magazine, which featured a different theme each month, such as advent or peace, along with questions to consider. Treating these like writing prompts taught me how to infuse language and imagery that contribute to a specific motif. Since the concise format didn’t allow room for wandering, everything had to cycle back to the theme. As my skills increased, I applied what I’d learned to longer, more intricate stories.
Jane Rubietta, speaker, coach, and author of twenty-one books, understands the value of a narrow focus. “Writing is a process of exploration for many people; we write to figure out what we think, to experience our feelings, to discover truth or hope, to understand. Coordinating all of that under one theme is like taking a box of a million sequins of different colors and separating them color-wheel style. It’s much easier to start with shades of red (a thematic question around a singular subject, or a problem), though it might feel constraining creatively.”
Action: Browse online for theme lists provided by magazines and print them for reference. You could even write a few pieces to send in!
2. Draw from Your Personal Life
While I tend to adopt an assigned theme and personalize it, Carla Gasser, author of The Beauty of an Uncluttered Soul, prefers to let inspiration emerge from her own experiences. She believes that themes carry more authenticity when they resonate with the writer.
“I would write about a theme, but it lacked the wisdom and wit of personal knowledge. I fell into the trap of telling (even preaching!) instead of showing, and my writing became one-dimensional. When I got out of the way and allowed the themes to choose me, my words came alive with grace and truth born from wrestling with God and working it out through writing.”
Gasser uses themes that arise from her private journal and blogging. However, even with this reverse approach, her prep work is similar to any other method of honing a theme. “First, I brainstorm all of the ideas related to my main theme. Next, I spend a lot of time researching, reading, and praying to find those concepts, passages, and stories in the Bible. From there, I connect the theme to the truth found in God’s Word and use other resources to strengthen and illuminate the connection.”
Action: Search your own memories. Have you struggled with redemption or hope? Received undeserved love? The hardships and happy moments you’ve gone through might offer a theme you can build a story around.
3. Create Anchor Charts Based on Other Stories in Your Genre
In the classroom, teachers often hang up a visual poster called an anchor chart. Click here to see examples. It’s a resource that highlights helpful strategies, rules, or concepts for students to remember. For writers, an anchor chart could include potential themes to explore or questions to lead you toward identifying a theme. You might look for answers to…
- What is the broad idea you want to communicate?
- What will your characters learn?
- What symbol represents your theme?
When I wrote my best-selling Meghan Rose series, I visited the websites of several children’s magazines and jotted down their themes and guiding questions. Then I pored over my chart, evaluating which ones I connected with or sparked a scene. From there, I progressed through the steps Gasser described above as I loosely outlined a plot. Not only did this keep me on track for each book but also enabled me to whip up an elevator pitch for the series, which revolved around themes like friendship, inner beauty, kind words, honesty, and joy.
You could also add symbolism to your anchor chart. As Rubietta explains, a simple picture or phrase can deepen your perception of a topic: “One of the benefits of inspirational writing is to see the symbolism in a statement, action, or event, and create broader application from that.”
In her Deeper Devotion series, four of the six daily devotionals are a journey through the entire book of Genesis. “Unless we can move into application, all those chapters are just information rather than leading to transformation. Symbolism in this instance isn’t suggesting that the stories are untrue. Rather, it asks: How can we find ourselves in these stories? How do they become symbolic for us? And what is God inviting us to do or be as a result?”
Action: Think hard on the themes you gravitate to. Then fill your own anchor chart with words, phrases, images, and symbols. Post it nearby to inspire you or maintain your course as you write.
The Power Between the Lines
Your theme is the centerpiece of your novel, the why of all the events, the collection of intimate and subtle implications begging to be heard. When readers reach the end, the theme resonates in their minds and hearts. So, choose it with wisdom. Use theme lists, your personal experiences, or an anchor chart to help you link your theme to your plot and characters. And remember these Wise words: “You can’t tell any kind of a story without having some kind of a theme, something to say between the lines.”
Elementary school teacher Lori Z. Scott usually writes fiction because, like an atom, she makes up everything. Her down time is filled with two quirky habits: chronic doodling and inventing lame jokes. Neither one impresses her principal (or friends/parents/casual strangers), but they do help inspire her writing. Somehow her odd musings led her to accidentally write the 10-book best-selling Meghan Rose series and purposely write more than 150 short stories, articles, essays, poems, and devotions. In addition, Lori contributed to over a dozen books, mostly so she would have an excuse to give people for not folding her laundry. (Hey! Busy writer here!) As a speaker, she’s visited several conferences and elementary schools to share her writing journey. Some of Lori’s favorite things include ice cream, fuzzy socks, Batman, Star Trek, Star Wars, books, and hugs from students. Guess which one is her favorite?