Showing posts with label theme. Show all posts
Showing posts with label theme. Show all posts

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

Trust your Readers--Part 2

Subtlety is important in good writing, and requires you to trust your readers to catch on to things.  In the first part of this series, we saw examples of problem #1:  showing and then telling.  Now we'll look at a bigger-picture problem.

Problem #2:  Beating Your Reader Over the Head with Big Themes

When you write, you need to make sure your readers understand—and remember—major elements in your story:  plot points, secondary characters, your hero's strengths and weaknesses, motivations, and what's at stake.  You will probably also be weaving in overall themes, questions, or messages.   

As with anything important, the temptation is to overemphasize these elements.  The result?  Beating your readers over the head. 

One common area this occurs is with character traits.  If, for example, you character is afraid of getting emotionally involved with other people, establish it well when you first reveal it, preferably through showing instead of telling, then give your readers credit for remembering.  Reinforce it with your character's actions now and then, as natural to the plot, but if you keep hammering it in, especially in narration, your reader will get annoyed.

Overall themes and messages can drown in repetition too.  If your character is a sickly, selfish, unhappy thing, and through the course of the book she starts helping and thus caring about other people, and slowly becomes healthier and happier, your reader will understand the connection.  You can reinforce it through specific things she does for others, and how she feels afterwards, but refrain from statements like "the selfish, unhappy, sickly woman had discovered that helping other people made her happy.  Her health had returned and her life had meaning."  Not only does this bang a frying pan on your reader's head; it ventures into the realm of preachiness.

If your aim is to influence readers, preaching is one of the least effective way to do so.  Nobody likes a lecture, but people do like good stories where characters make positive changes in their lives or suffer through mistakes that the readers might do well to avoid.  When readers sympathize with characters different from themselves, or learn about situations they knew nothing about, perspectives can change.  All this will only have a real effect, however, if the reader is left alone to make the connections.

There's often a fine line between overexplanation and underexplanation.  In trying to be subtle and cut out repetition, you can stray into underexplanation, something just as deadly.  You, as the writer, might not be the best judge of how much reminding is enough, since you know your ideas and characters so well.  This is where beta readers and critiquers come in so handy.

Solution to Beating your Reader Over the Head

Find several people who can read your entire manuscript carefully and give constructive feedback.  This may be a local critique group, fellow writers or avid readers you met online, or friends and family who will be honest yet kind and whose critiques won't ruin your relationship.  Ask them specifically to look for areas of repetition, and make careful note of them.

Add to their lists any other story elements you believe you may have hit home too hard.  Then sit down and read the whole book, cover to cover, within a few days.   Mark the page numbers where you touch on these ideas.  Then go back and trim, trim, trim.  

After you're all done, find a few people who have never read you book.  If it still makes sense to them, and communicates what you want it to, you've done your job well.    

Subtlety takes work, but it's vital for good writing.  As the famous saying goes, "If I'd had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."  Take the time to write that shorter, tighter, more subtle story, and you'll be rewarded. 

Next time: 

Last time: 

Melinda Brasher writes in many genres.  This month's issue of Spark Anthology (Volume IV) will include one of her science fiction short stories, about an ill-fated colonization project.  To get a 35% discount, use the code BRASHER-FRIENDS.  Offer expires January 31.  She is also the author of Far-Knowing, a YA fantasy novel, and Leaving Home, a collection of short stories, travel essays, and flash fiction.  Visit her blog for all the latest:



So far, we’ve discussed your PREMISE, the PLOT POINTS and COMPLICATIONS, and SCENES.

Today let’s talk about determining the meat of the story which will help define what the story is about, who the protagonist is, what he/she wants/needs, who your audience is. Without answers to these questions, your story might be a great idea, but will it develop into a readable story?

These 5 points were the hardest for me to define. I had the most trouble with the THEME. It changed about fifteen times before I realized what it was.

First, let’s look at MOTIVE. This is not your protag’s motive, but that of the story. Here’s mine:

Tell a story set in the far future about how a strong female deals with an oppressive, male-dominated society.

Pretty straightforward. 

Next is DESIRE. This does apply to the protag. What is his/her biggest desire in the story? What must they accomplish or die trying?

Mine: to be left alone to live her own life her way, to meet her birth mother, her twin sister and be with the boy she loves without government interference.

GOAL. Every character in the story must have a goal. Even the antag has a goal. But here we are concerned with the protag’s goal. What drives your character?

Mine:  to get through this horrific experience, required by the government of all girls her age but escape if she sees a chance.

CONFLICT. I know you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: You don’t have a story without conflict. There should be LOTS and LOTS of conflict in a good story. We’re talking here about the MAIN conflict of the story and maybe one or two SUB conflicts.

Mine: Shawna’s bullying (jealous); government’s Generational Program which is inflicted on every girl age 12-20; internal conflict about who she is.

THEME. Like I said, this was the hardest for me. I read through list after list of possible themes looking for the one which fit my story. I found several, but they never seemed just right. For example, knowing who you truly are can make you strong enough to deal with adversity. While this is true of my character, it is not the theme of the entire story.  Information can lead to knowledge. Oppression leads to rebellion. By losing everything, sometimes you gain a true sense of self. While all of these held a glimmer of what the story is about, none were complete.

Then I thought of this one: Sometimes, it’s only by staring into the abyss one finds the courage to jump across.

This fit my story in many ways, which I listed in my notes and was pleased to see how well it fit. So don’t try on just one or two, keep looking for the right idea until you find the one that fits.

Another interesting way of getting the theme across is the use of Symbolism. What are some symbols you can use to establish the theme in the reader’s mind?

Mine: Rayna’s view out the window beside her top bunk is of a narrow street and the front of another tall building. The street is so narrow she imagines getting a running start down the central dorm aisle between the beds and launching herself to freedom across the chasm of the street, landing on the roof of the next building.

In the Exercise Yard, where they all go for one hour every day, Rayna presses so hard against the chainlink fence while staring down her street to freedom, that she become imprinted by the links on her cheeks, forehead, shoulders and hands.

Next month, getting to know your Protagonist.

For an in-depth discussion of these points be sure to read K.M. Weiland's Outlining Your Novel

Rebecca Ryals Russell, a fourth-generation Floridian, was born in Gainesville, grew up in Ft Lauderdale then lived in Orlando and Jacksonville with her Irish husband and four children. Due to the sudden death of Rebecca's mother, they moved to Wellborn, near Lake City, to care for her father, moving into his Victorian home built in 1909. After teaching Middle Graders for fourteen years she retired and began writing the story idea which had been brewing for thirty years.  Within six months she wrote the first three books of each series, YA Seraphym Wars and MG Stardust Warriors. The world she created has generated numerous other story ideas including two current works in progress, SageBorn Chronicles based on various mythologies of the world and aimed at the lower Middle Grade reader and Saving Innocence, another MG series set on Dracwald and involving dragons and Majikals. She is finishing a YA Dystopian Romance which has been a NaNoWriMo project for three years. She loves reading YA Fantasy, Horror and Sci Fi as well as watching movies.  Read more about Rebecca and her WIPs as well as how to buy books in her various series at  You may email her at

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