Workshtop: Theme

Vision 65

Workshop: Theme


Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2011, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved



(This workshop has been adapted from the Two Year Novel Course, Year 1)


Step 1:

Theme, at its simplest, can be stated as a description of a human situation: love, betrayal, hope, despair, trust, desperation, hatred, discovery, madness, tradition, pride. . . . There are many single words which can be applied as the basic theme to a story. When considering theme, start by choosing one word you might use to underlay and stress some principle in your story. As your story develops, you might change your mind about the single word. However, starting with this underlying element for a story can create a new, cohesive bond to tie your scenes together.


Finding the words that create the theme in your story is a matter of trial and error. One way is to look at the attitude of your main character.  Is she angry over something that happened?  Is he trying to avenge a wrong? Since your main chracters drive the story, it is their emotions and actions that can fuel a theme.


Your Turn 1:

Either examine something you are working on now or look at a new idea and consider what emotional charge your main character seems to portray. Despair? Hope? Power? Determination? Start with a single word. My examples are:

Example 1 -- Greed

Example 2 -- Desperation


Step 2

Expanding the single word is often going to create something which sounds like a cliche. However, even though cliche-ish Love Conquers All is a viable theme. Building a theme of words which resonate in your story is an ongoing project, and quite often the reader will find a different theme (or set of themes) than the one you thought you had written. That's all right -- we filter what we read through our own experiences, and like everything else in life, our reactions to events can differ widely from others.

The theme will pervade your story, and give it an underlying structure and can sometimes help you shape scenes and dialogues to suit a larger purpose than just their current place in the story. You will be creating the subtle tool of subtext.


Putting together a group of words obviously expands the scope of the theme. Love and hatred go together, but so do greed and lust. The words can by antonyms or synonyms or combinations of both. Play with words. Take cliches and turn them around.


Your Turn 2:

Write out a short line that encapsulates your theme and links it with other words. Play with the words. Write a cliche if that's what works. Or write a cliché and then see how you might turn it around.

Example 1 -- Unchecked greed and power go hand-in-hand with mistrust and betrayal.

Example 2 -- Desperation makes a dangerous ally.


Step 3

Theme is a guide to relationships, actions and reactions of the characters in your story. Keep your theme in mind as you consider how to build the basic relationships. In many instances, for example, greed or betrayal will be strong motivations in how the people in example #1 react to one another.


And I can use the mistrust to further twist the story. Does the main character trust his brother -- and then learns the brother has accepted money from the corporation the main character is fighting? Does he distrust a high echelon corporation employee, but that person is killed and he realizes he mistrusted the wrong person? Those are simple, ways to deal with greed and betrayal. There can be far more devious ways to use the theme.


The second story idea has -- at least for me -- a more complex problem. How far will a group of people go to survive? Will they willingly bring down an entire alien civilization to save themselves? Will it make a difference if they know they are the last humans?


How will the situation affect relationships within the human group? How does desperation (theme again) affect the women when they realize that for generations, their gender is going to be little more than baby factories?

What if one group moves from desperation to despair, believing nothing can save this remnant of humanity? If they are doomed, would they turn to an alien messiah as their hope for salvation?

Theme presents an underlying impact in your story, and you can use it as a guide when you feel you are losing your way in a scene. Refer to the theme when you are uncertain of your next step, and see how it can help to direct your writing.


Here is a helpful little article about theme and Horatio Alger, Jr.


According to Peter Rubie and Gary Provost in How to Tell a Story:

Whenever you mention to people that you're working on a book they probably ask, "What is it about?"...But what if you had to give them a one-word answer?

The answer to that question is the theme of your book.

There should be in your narrative a single idea, echoed throughout the book at many levels. Maybe it's freedom. Maybe it's integrity, loyalty, regret, sorrow -- something. This is the theme of your story.


How to Tell a Story also discusses creating a sub-thread stressing the theme more strongly than the rest of the book. Let's say you have a fantasy story structured around learning to trust. The main story might be about the ending of a long war, the final battles, the deep-seated hatred that has to be overcome, and the negotiations which will try to reunite two countries. Learning to trust that both sides are going to put down their arms and become peaceful neighbors is going to be a main part of the story. A sub-thread might deal entirely with a younger member of the nobility negotiating something from his father, and learning to trust him. Perhaps he has been a captive of the enemy for a long time. Trust is not going to come easy.


In The Writer's Journey Christopher Vogler states:

...What is the story really about? If you had to boil down its essence to a single word or phrase, what would it be? What single idea or quality is it about? Love? Trust? Betrayal?... Is your theme "Love conquers all,"...?


Finding your theme may take a while and you may find it will change and mutate with time. However, knowing you have a single theme you want to stress will help you with some scenes, giving them double duty and depth.


Your turn 3

Once you have worked out your theme, use it to work out some basic ways in which the theme will work.

Example 1




Unchecked greed and power go hand-in-hand with mistrust and betrayal.


There are a couple ways I will use this in the story. Obviously people who crave and hoard power will not trust others who might be competitors for their power. And, also obviously, people who do not have power tend to mistrust those who do.


But on a personal level, the lure of power can affect relationships with those who pose no direct threat. In this case, the main character's wife will have mistrusted her husband, although she has legally made it impossible for him to draw wealth and power from her.


How can this be used in an opposite way? Who can be trusted? Who might be philanthropic and he MC doesn't even realize it?


Example 2




Desperation makes a dangerous ally.


All the humans in this story will be living with desperation, knowing that if they do not succeed in surviving -- and multiplying -- there will be no more humans. This is going to affect all of them in one way or another. Some will break under the strain and others will (perhaps) try to finish the job of destroying everyone.


Desperation will make everything they do take on an edge. What will they pass on to future humans by way of knowledge and what will they let die? How will it affect their feelings towards the aliens in general? What do they fear they will become?


Desperation must be tempered with hope. Desperation as the only motive for survival obviously does not work. However, failure of hope can lead to the most desperate moments. On the other hand, unexpected hope can create a powerful scene.


Knowing the theme of your book is not essential to writing, but it can be a powerful tool if you find you can use it.  As you work with the idea of themes, you might find that one character inspires certain aspects of themes and another a different set. Don't be afraid to play with both and see what conflicts you can create when the two come into contact.


Also, don't forget to let the theme ideas spread to other characters, even when the MC isn't around. Forge those ties that underlie the entire book, and you'll find you have a stronger story for it.