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4 Ways to Identify "Theme" In Your Stories

Updated: Feb 3, 2020

4 Ways to Identify Theme In Your Stories

by Meg Trast

I’ve been a-pondering quite a bit these past few weeks about “themes,” what they are, and how we discover and refine them in our books. If you can identify your themes, it’s easier to flesh them out and align your story with them. While researching the topic, I actually found a lot of conflicting ideas. Each article I clicked on cited different information – and much of it that rejected information from the previous! So I can only imagine that, in your own research, you might find yourself confused or uncertain about where to begin.

Today, I bring you 4 ways to identify “theme” in your book.

1. Understand what you’re looking for. The theme is not the same as the “moral,” “plot,” or “conflict.” Themes are elements like love, family, friendship, etc. that you want your reader to think about and connect through. The moral of the story might be, “Love conquers all!” but your underlying theme might be perseverance, or love, or struggling. Understanding the difference will help you identify the theme in your story. (Disclaimer: it’s a popular school of thought that “theme cannot be boiled down to a single word,” but for the purpose of this post and simplicity’s sake we’re doing exactly that.) Themes must do exactly one thing: somehow reflect the human condition. [there is a great list of popular genre fiction and their themes in this article]

2. Summarize your book in a sentence. I know, what do we writers hate more than anything? Summaries. But a summary helps you identify key elements within your story. That’s likely why they pose such a challenge; you’re forced to whittle off the fluff, prose, and exposition to discover what the root of your story is. If you can find one sentence that perfectly describes the heart of your story, you should find your theme within.

3. Consider what you want your reader to “walk away” with. One of the first questions I ask new authors is, “What do you want your reader to feel when they finish the book?” Your first thought might pertain to the moral of the story, if your story contains one. Discovering the theme might take some deeper digging. I recently read a manuscript, and the author easily answered my question with, “Hope.” And it became clear, as I read, that “hope” was the intended theme because of how certain scenes and character development manifested. When you read through your own manuscript, you should be able to feel the theme in each part of the story. This, like many writing-related things, will mostly take practice (and a good second set of eyes, if you can get them).

4. Discover what is universal about your story. Theme is meant to be something that an audience can quickly relate to. Maybe your book isn’t for everybody, but you have a target audience. They should be able to read that 1-sentence summary and think, “Yes! I understand this feeling.” It’s the thing that ties your audience together (reflecting the human condition).

Why is it important to know what the theme is?

The plain simple truth is this: every book has a theme. Whether this was intended or not doesn’t negate the fact it’s there. YouTuber Lindsay Ellis breaks down some of these ideas in one video. Once you’ve identified it, you can either let it be or use it to strengthen your story. Embrace it! Books with strong themes, historically, perform much better than those without.

After reading this list, how would you identify the theme of your story? Let me know in the comments below!

[You can also check out the Vlog to hear me rant about writerly things]

Thank you for reading!

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