Wednesday, December 12

Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Why Your Story Should Have A Theme

Theme has always been a bit of a mystery to me.

One of the ways I've thought of theme is that it's similar to the moral of a story. For instance, Hansel and Gretel. The theme might be expressed as: if something seems too good to be true it probably is. But that's vague and I felt I was missing something.

What Theme Is

Talia Vance has an excellent article on what exactly we mean by 'a story's theme'. In her article, The Power of Theme, she writes:
My take on theme in writing is simple. / What do you have to say about the human condition? That’s your theme.
Talia's agent told her that a book needs to be about more than the characters and plot and if an author can't say what that something is, and in only one sentence, then the book wasn't finished.  Each story needs
Something that makes the reader think beyond the characters and their immediate problems, intruding into the reader’s own views about the human condition, reaffirming or changing the way they look at the world.

What Theme Is Not

Talia holds that the way I had thought of theme, as being akin to the moral of a story, is incorrect. She writes:
One caveat, theme should not be confused with a moral. Themes can be dark and pessimistic. And the goal of your book is not to “teach” a certain point. Your goal is to tell a good story, and through story, share a truth about the human condition. Theme connects readers to your work in an immediate, interactive and persuasive way.

Some Examples And A Tip

Examples of themes:

- Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
- Beauty is only skin deep
- Promises are made to be broken
- A man/woman is only as good as his/her word.
Tip: At some point have one of your characters explicitly state the theme. Stating the theme "primes your audience to interpret events with your world view in mind".


The power of theme is that:
It challenges the reader to question their own beliefs. Through story, a writer can raise new questions and present a different way of looking at society, life and our own belief system. When executed well, theme can help ... people ... empathize with a different world view.
Powerful indeed.

Other articles you might like:
- Hugh Howey's Awesome Deal With Simon & Schuster And The Importance Of Agents
- Robert J. Sawyer: Showing Not Telling
- Short Story Structures: Several Ways Of Structuring Short Fiction

Photo credit: "Like Stars" by Mikko Luntiala under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.


  1. "Tip: At some point have one of your characters explicitly state the theme."

    Good tip. The theme of _Heart of Stone_ is 'Sometimes love is stronger than death', but I never had a character state it in those words. If ever I issue a new version, I shall add that.


    1. Thanks Antares, I liked that tip too. Talia had some good points.

      By the way, there was some discussion of this over here:

  2. Very interesting and informative article. The writing on theme tells us that the importance of it and how we can sell a story by using a catchy name.

  3. Like all writing rules...I'm happy to see this one (all stories must have a theme) broken all the time.

    Thank goodness for indie publishing. I shake my head when I hear narrow minded individuals make absolute statements like the agent above.

    Theme may be more important in literary works than other genres, but please.

    There is one rule:

    - Entertain

    Just opening my big mouth. (I do that often)

    1. Glad you did! Someone else mentioned (I publish my posts through G+ as well) that it's nearly always possible to 'read' a theme into a story, even if the author didn't consciously use one.

      Faulkner was asked about this once and said it happened to him all the time, but that he was fine with it. He accepted that there were themes, etc., in his work even though he didn't consciously put them there.

      So, yes, I agree. If we entertain with our stories then we're doing well. :)

  4. I really appreciated what Larry Brooks said in his book Story Engineering about theme, and he's repeated it on his site, too. Theme will come. You don't necessarily have to write about a theme, because if you're telling a meaningful story the themes will be there, and your readers may find themes that even you didn't know you'd been addressing. But I agree wholeheartedly that a theme is not a moral. Thanks for the great post!

    1. Larry Brooks is great! And love his site, I haven't read Story Engineering yet, but I'm sure I'd get a lot from it, thanks for mentioning it.

      As always, thanks for your comment, csoffer. :)


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