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Writing: When to Consider Theme

Before I decided to write something myself, I had the naive idea that theme was a sort of by-product of writing. I guess this is because I had a rather naive view of writing and writers. I thought, you have an idea, and you sit down and start writing it. Afterwards you do some editing, and voila! you have a book. And maybe there are some people who do this—though now, I suspect that even those who consider themselves pantsers (those who write by the seat of their pants), actually spend some time considering character, pacing, theme and a host of other things either before, during or after they’ve written their first draft, even if they didn’t create an outline before beginning.

It didn’t take long in my initial forays into the “how to write” rabbit hole to learn that in addition to understanding your characters and creating character arcs, you can also (some would say, “should”) consider the theme of your story before you start writing it.

The first writer I heard this from was Rachael Stephen in her video “defining your story’s theme.” She also pointed out that theme needs to be specific—not some category. So rather than say that “Jealousy” is your theme, you would make a fairly specific statement about the nature of jealousy, for instance, “uncontrolled jealousy can ruin your life.” 

Stephen also uses an apt comparison: that in the case of theme, stories are similar to expository essays—both posit a truth (an essay’s thesis; a novel’s theme) that the rest of the text will work to prove.

I would not have felt the need to call my blog Amanda Down the Rabbit Hole, if I were ever satisfied with one interpretation of anything, so, of course, I kept looking.

An article by K.M. Weiland, titled “Plot, Character, and Theme: the Greatest Love Triangle in Fiction,” caught my eye. It put forth the idea that each of these three elements are integral to the overall story, that each one affects and is affected by the others. 

As far as a definition of theme, Weiland’s was essentially the same as Stephen’s: it is the idea that the story is trying to prove. However, Weiland took it even further, connecting the theme to character arc and plot. The theme gets played out in the plot via the character’s internal growth. 

Using Weiland’s vocabulary, the theme is tied to both the lie the character believes and the truth she needs to accept in order to grow and perhaps reach her goal. The plot throws obstacles and challenges at the protagonist that will force her to deal with her lie, thus proving the theme.

In Adam Skelter’s video “Character Arcs & Theme,” he states that a story’s purpose is to teach us “the rules of the universe by exploring characters who obey or break them.” Thus the theme of a given story is “a rule of the universe which expresses a moral value.”

Similarly to Weiland, Skelter connects theme to character arc by saying that the character’s flaw (i.e. lie) is what leads the audience to the theme—letting the audience see how the flaw prevents the character from reaching his goal.

This idea of the character arc being tied to the theme is reiterated by story consultant, Michael Hauge, who called the theme a “prescription for how we should all live our lives.” He suggests that the theme shows us how our character grows, what it is they need in order to live in their “essence,” as he calls it.

As if tying theme to the protagonist’s arc were not enough, writer Amanda Rawson Hill, explains how to theme can also be used to develop secondary characters and subplots.

Hill, in a slight twist, suggests going from the specific of your protagonist’s theme, to the more general topic that the theme represents. Using my earlier example, if your theme was, “uncontrolled jealousy can ruin your life,” then you would decide on the theme topic—in this case “jealousy”—and use this to inform the views and actions of secondary characters, so you might ask, “how are other characters dealing with jealousy?”

After my journey along this rabbit hole, I can say, I am persuaded that deciding on a theme early on is a good idea. I like the idea of using theme to help determine my character’s arc and the obstacles she’ll have to face. It narrows an infinity of choices into something I might actually be able to contend with.

I wonder what rabbit hole I will stumble down next . . .

Links to sources cited in this post are listed below:

Rachael Stephen’s video “defining your story’s theme”:

K.M. Weiland:

Adam Skelter’s video:

Amanda Rawson HIll:

Michael Hauge:

*Cover art by my eleven-year-old daughter 😊

4 thoughts on “Writing: When to Consider Theme

  1. Hey – Rachael Stephen here! Just wanted to say thanks for the mention and I enjoyed reading this! It sounds like my full idea of theme shares a lot in common with the other writers you explored.

    I also go through the exact steps for coming up with a theme topic, turning it into a specific theme, and then how to express it through the plot and character arc in my course, the Story Magic Academy if you’re interested.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I got this far “down the rabbit hole” by exploring whether to follow you on Twitter. I’d say that’s now a Yes. As a mostly pantser, sometimes I need to see what the characters do–what the story is–before the theme becomes clear to me. It’s in the revision process that I can draw this out and, in a subsequent draft, begin again with the end in mind. I was very impressed with the quality of thinking and writing in this post. @macostewartnm.

    Liked by 1 person

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