How to Develop a Powerful Theme in Fiction

Thinking of a book’s theme might give your nightmarish flashbacks to your high school English Literature classes, being forced to nitpick your way through a dull text.

Theme is certainly one of those top-level aspects of literary analysis that you CAN get by without thinking about, as both a writer and a reader.

But as a writer, a good writer, it’s probably best you do give it some thought.

Nailing theme in your writing can be the thing that turns a generally good story into a truly great read.

A theme can be the thing that sticks in a reader’s head long after they read The End, often without them realizing it.

Let’s look a bit closer….

how to write theme

What is Theme?

A theme is what a story has to say about something.

It is a concept/s that pervades the book, story, film, artwork, music, etc.

A theme gives a story wider significance beyond the nuts and bolts of the plot.

A theme can be a moral but doesn’t necessarily need to be.

Theme can be a universal comment on the human condition but does not necessarily need to be so lofty.

A theme can be a simple observation about a single aspect of life.

A theme is a recurring idea that gives the story—the characters, the plot, the setting, everything—a unified purpose.

The theme does not need to be something the writer personally agrees with but can be simply a perspective worth exploring.

Subject Versus Theme

A theme and a subject are related, but they’re not the same thing.

A subject is what the story is about. For example, war, love, wealth, innocence, freedom, aging, mortality, families.

A theme is the work’s comment on the subject. For example, war is horrific yet could be necessary. Wealth will always conquer innocence. Love doesn’t necessarily conquer all. The complex relationships of mothers and daughters. And so on….

Why Is Theme Important?

Theme—and a single work can absolutely have more than one theme—creates the real juicy purpose of a story. In her discussion of literary theme, Sara Letourneau refers to a book’s theme as the soul of the story.

The theme is where the reader will often forge their most significant connection.

Since the theme is so often entwined with the character’s arc and their own journey, it often represents what the character learns in the book and as a result, what the reader learns too.

Nailing the theme can be the factor that turns a generally good story into a truly amazing read.Click To Tweet

Ways to Write A Theme Into Your Story

Decide on the Theme Before You Write

For example: “I want to write a story on the theme of how social media destroys our capacity for true human connection.”

If you’re starting with your theme, from this point you’ll then develop a plot that illustrates this premise, populate it with characters and have those characters learn this theme as they live out their character arc.

The risk of taking this approach to develop your theme is that the theme can often feel heavy-handed and potentially preachy.

One way around this is to ensure the plot always moves to serve the character and their most realistic arc, and not make a character act in a certain way solely to serve the theme.

Decide on the Theme As You’re Writing

This is my personal favorite approach to writing themes.

Start writing your story, beginning with characters, their arcs and the resulting plots.

As the story develops the theme usually starts to emerge on its own through the patterns of the narrative, the decisions the characters make and the changes they go through.

Once you’ve started to identify the theme, you can make narrative choices to suit the theme, but as you’ve started with the characters and plot first, the theme will always serve them and not the other way around.

Using the above example of theme, you might start a story off with a couple trying a long distance relationship, doing most of their connecting through Facebook. The theme would emerge as that erodes the foundation of their capacity to understand each other…. or however the story progresses.

Identify the Theme After You’ve Written

Once your story is written, take a look back and identify the recurring ideas throughout the book. What’s universally significant? What do the characters learn? This is your theme.

The risk of finding your theme after the writing is done is the theme might not be as strong as it might have been had it been intentionally developed throughout the writing. T

his might be a missed opportunity to add some universal layers to the character arcs, giving the reader something profound to hook into.

That said, you can always go back and fine-tune the communication of theme throughout the narrative.

Let the Reader Decide the Theme

While intentionally building a theme into your work from the get go will usually result in a stronger story, letting things dangle a little can prompt reader engagement in very effective ways.

When I’m reading a book, I like to ponder what the theme might be as I go along.

Sometimes I’m happy with the theme the author dishes up, and his/her intentions are obvious. For example, it’s quite clear the theme of the Hunger Games is sacrifice for the good of the community, the importance of family, the corruptive power of wealth, and the treachery of social divisions (see, I told you there can be more than one theme!).

Other times, I’ll be reading a book and get to the end and be left pondering what a book is all about. Themes might have been presented, but it has been left to the reader to form their own conclusions.

This can be a powerful way to prompt reader engagement.

This way encourages the reader to think about everything that happened in the story and what it COULD mean in a wider sense.

The great thing about this approach is that readers will come up with themes you never even considered, and different readers can have different interpretations.

This subjective analysis is the very nature and purpose of art.

How do you approach theme in your writing? Tell us in the comments below.

Kate Krake
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Kate Krake

Kate Krake writes speculative fiction and non-fiction. She is the author of the urban fantasy series Guessing Tales. Kate blogs about popular culture, health, wellness and creative writing. She lives in Brisbane, Australia with her husband, daughter and two beagles. Find out more on
Kate Krake
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