Theme: The Heart of Your Story

"If theme is a story's soul, and plot is its mind,
then character is its heart . . . the life force of story."
                                                    K.M. Weiland

The last big snow storm we had in Albuquerque in mid-February brought bitter Arctic winds. I sat hunkered down in my kitchen watching the birds out my window pecking through the drifts of snow that blanketed their feeder. One tiny bird zoomed down from a twig in the old pine tree next door. It had come from a row of more tiny birds, pygmy nuthatches, who huddled together appearing to use each other’s body heat to stay warm. The branch jiggled up and down. I wondered if that was the ferocious wind—abnormally brutal for our normally temperate New Mexico weather—or the tiny birds shivering. 

My friends had trouble making out the image in the photo. The birds were so well camouflaged, and my zoom lens was a bit fuzzy. But the birds were there, and when you could make them out, made a rather stunning photo.

Theme in story is much like the tiny nuthatches. Theme is unobtrusive, even invisible, and when it is crafted right, it becomes the glue that binds the entire story together.

How to Find the Right Theme: Look Within

In an article on the blog writers write, Amanda Patterson gives examples of the themes in well-known children’s books, such as love and friendship between Fern and Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web, and courage as the prominent theme in the Harry Potter series. She names ten recurring themes in children’s stories:

1. Courage.

2. Friendship.

3. Belonging/Identity.

4. Family.

5. Loss/Grief.

6. Growing Up.

7. Anger.

8. Suffering.

9. Jealousy.

10. Love.

Where to begin, though? Look to your own life. What conflicts have you faced? What themes run through your life? Make a list of them. Choose the conflict and theme that stands out the most and pair it with a captivating setting. Think up viable plot ideas and characters, and you’re good, right? That’s a good start. But there is one thing you need to have: a thorough understanding of what story theme is, why you’ve chosen a particular theme, and what that theme means to you.

Strive for a Good Balance

K.M. Weiland, in her book, Writing Your Story’s Theme: The Writer’s Guide to Plotting Stories that Matter, writes, “powerful themes . . . emerge from the conjunction of strong plots and resonant character arcs.” Theme doesn’t just happen in the story, the author intentionally crafts theme as an equal partner to plot and character. She advises, “Craft powerful messages that are shown via plot and character, rather than told to readers.” When done seamlessly, the results are stories with deep meaning and purpose that resonate with the reader long after the book is finished. 

The “thematic principle,” according to Weiland, is your story’s “unifying idea.” Take a commonly-held belief, such as wars are evil, or try to disprove wars are a necessary evil. Tackle questions about life, such as why are we here? The concrete idea you’ve chosen for theme is shown in the closing scenes and emulated throughout the story.

Weiland’s book explains how creating story theme is accomplished in detail. This book and her other books, such as Creating Character Arcs, Structuring Your Novel, and Outlining Your Novel are terrific tools for writers’ tool kits. She also has a blog:

A Not-So Invisible Theme

The book that brought the meaning of story theme home to me is The Skull of Truth by Bruce Coville. Not only is Coville’s story entertaining, fun, and magical, but it also contains a serious part about a boy, Gilbert, who has had to shave his head due to cancer. Charlie shows solidarity to Gilbert by shaving his head, too. Coville covered a lot of ground in this story, which I think you can tell, is one of my favorites.

But for a theme, Coville couldn’t have been more blatant. The theme is even in the title: Truth. Because Charlie Eggleston has a problem. You wouldn't want to come right out and call him a liar. But he did have a habit of stretching the truth to fit his purposes. We first find this out on page two during a visit to Tucker's Swamp. He's held a frog, loved the smell of the swamp, loved everything about it; well, maybe not the mosquitoes. So, he told a little white fib about Mark Evans's dad and how he planned to drain the swamp. Charlie told the fib to protect the swamp from being destroyed by development. A little later after Charlie forgot Gramma Ethel would be visiting for dinner (he'd already missed dinner and had to eat cold stew), Charlie very proudly told his uncle that he'd like to learn to tell stories. Gramma Ethel scolded, "You don't do anything but tell stories." Two pages earlier Charlie even wondered if his little sister, Mimi, who was in kindergarten, was fibbing when she said Andy Simmons ate a bug today. "He still hadn't figured out how to tell when Mimi was fibbing." Four chapters have the word "truth" in them. Charlie even meets Truth at the end and follows Truth "home;" and at the end, the reader finds out if Charlie was really a liar or not. Perhaps not so subtle, but by the time you are finished with the book, Coville's message is loud and clear: it's always better to tell the truth. Please note how much and how far-fetched, I might add, Coville played around with, or in educational jargon, explored, truth, which can't help but start the young reader's wheels turning about the meaning of Coville's story long after the book is finished.

Coville made good use of symbols for the theme of truth in his story, such as the skull itself—the skull of truth. Author Jane McBride Choate makes the suggestion to use symbols, and having the word for your symbol appear in the title is an extra-added bonus. In Choate's article, "Theme," she writes, "In one of my books, I used a necklace with a rainbow pendant as a symbol for the heroine's independence and integrity. The publisher liked the idea so much that a drawing of the pendant was included on the spine of the book and a . . . rainbow [appeared] on the cover.”

Just as you think through and plan the other elements of your story, such as the setting, plot, and characters, you can also intentionally plan what your main theme will be, and also plan your other less prominent themes. Then during your editing and revising stage, you can do an analysis by highlighting the places where the theme(s) are shown throughout your story.


Introductory Photo: By Linda Wilson

Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher, has published over 150 articles for children and adults, several short stories for children, and her first book, Secret in the Stars: An Abi Wunder Mystery, available on Amazon. Publishing credits include biosketches for the library journal, Biography Today, which include Troy Aikman, Stephen King, and William Shatner; Pockets; Hopscotch; and an article for Highlights for Children. Secret in the Mist, the second in the Abi Wunder series, is coming soon. A Packrat Holiday: Thistletoe’s Gift, and Tall Boots, Linda’s picture books, will be published later this year. Follow Linda on


Terry Whalin said...


What an insightful and deliberate way to think about theme for stories. Fascinating and appreciated.


lastpg said...

Thank you, Terry. Weiland's book in particular has helped me look beyond just thinking up a theme, but also realizing that Plot, Character, and Theme are equally important and combine together to give our books the most impact and meaning.

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, excellent article. Love how you put theme:
"Theme doesn’t just happen in the story, the author intentionally crafts theme as an equal partner to plot and character." Thanks for sharing!

lastpg said...

You're welcome, Karen. I learned a lot from Weiland's book. And just think, she's written so many other books to help authors!

deborah lyn said...

Wow Linda great article.
Theme can be a real teaser for a writer or an artist, but you have put it so well: "Theme is unobtrusive, even invisible, and when it is crafted right, it becomes the glue that binds the entire story together." Thank you!

lastpg said...

Thanks, Deborah. I do appreciate that theme is unobtrusive, but just love that Bruce Coville broke that rule and made his theme of telling the truth so obvious! That's what we're supposed to do, I suppose. Understand the rules and then break them! But for most of us, I think, theme is closer to how Weiland describes it.

Don’t Depend 100% on Your Publisher

By Terry Whalin (@terrywhalin) In 2007, America’s Publicist Rick Frishman invited me to participate on the faculty of MegaBook Marketing Uni...