What is the Theme of a Story & How can You Find it?
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Theme: we all know stories have it, but we may not always know exactly what it is or how to even begin finding it for our own story. Your story can have multiple themes and always has one central theme. It’s a concept that lies below your narrative. It can be a definitive message or a more abstract idea.
You can watch the video below or read the article.
What is theme?
“Story theme is the takeaway message the artist wants the single audience member to discover from reading the story. It is the deeply held truth we are embedding into our story. It is the change the author is trying to evoke in the reader.” — StoryGrid.com
In other words, story theme is what we as writers want our readers to take away from our story.
Our theme is tied to the stakes within our chosen genre. Thus, knowing which content genre you're writing in is important.
Does a story need a theme?
A story always has a theme, whether you’re conscious of it or not. It’s a theme of good vs. evil, individual vs. society, love vs. hate, and so on.
As a writer, you want to be conscious of your story’s theme (or themes). It can be something that the reader ingrains subconsciously or something that makes them think. You can incorporate a simpler theme or a more complex theme. You can create political structures, societal classes, different races, and more to help your theme come across.
Related: Review of The Write Structure
How do you find your story theme?
Of course, your story can have multiple themes. Here, we're really focusing on our main theme; our global takeaway message, so to say.
Your theme is usually based on both your external and internal content genres. For instance, if you have an action story, your theme revolves around life and death. If you have a different external content genre, your theme will revolve around those things.
For instance, if you’re writing in the performance genre, your theme will revolve around success versus failure.
For an action story, a very general theme can sound like this:
“Life is preserved when the protagonist defeats the antagonist.”
Or, if it's a cautionary tale:
“Death reigns when the protagonist fails to defeat the antagonist.”
If your internal genre is worldview, for instance, then you can also incorporate this into the theme. Then it becomes:
“Life is preserved when the protagonist uses their new worldview to defeat the antagonist.”
Here, the internal and the external come together.
Then you want to make the theme more specific. After all, the example is a very general theme. You want to make it more specific to your story. For instance:
“Life reigns when we learn to ask for help from our friends.”
This can be the takeaway message that you want to give your readers. If your protagonist defeats the antagonist and survives because they have learned to ask for help from their friends.
Or you can have something like:
“Life reigns when we trust in ourselves and others.”
Again, the action external stakes are combined with the worldview stakes. It's specifically the lesson that the protagonist needs to learn. In this case, to trust in themselves and in others, so the people around them.
In short: find your story’s global theme by considering you external and internal genre, and think about the change you want your protagonist to go through.
Related: How to know it's time to get a plot critique
Incorporating theme within your story
Of course, knowing your theme isn’t going to be enough. You want to put that theme into your story.
You can do this by making sure your external and internal content genre have the right elements. In other words, the right conventions and expectations.
With the internal genre, this also means focusing on your protagonist’s growth. What kind of person are they at the start of the story? What kind of person are they at the end? What lesson do they have to learn for your theme?
Then you have to make sure that this lesson plays out in the climactic moment of your story.
For instance, the protagonist has to learn that finding success isn’t just about winning; it’s also about how you play the game. So, in the climactic moment, they may not win, but they still feel successful because of how they played and performed.
Or your protagonist may need to learn to put their trust in someone, even if that brings a great risk. In the climactic moment, they survive and defeat the villain because they put their faith in someone else.
Write your story’s theme
I hope this article helped you understand story theme and how you can find it in your story.
Now that you know what theme you want your story to have, you can continue plotting and writing your story.
Or, if you’re in the developmental editing stage, you can determine whether the theme you currently have is the one you want.
Not sure what your content genre is? Read this article on fiction genres.
If you need some help with your theme, please contact me through email.