Uncategorised3 ways to work out what your story theme is | The Editing Lounge

I don’t need to know what my story theme is, I hear you say. Just let me crack on with my writing

I know. Hitting pause to think about your theme doesn’t feel like a priority when you’ve got all these great story ideas to get down on paper. Plus, some writers feel that identifying a theme for their story will tie their writing down or limit it in some way. 

I can promise you that it won’t. On the contrary, if you have some idea of your theme before you start writing, your first draft will be stronger. That’s not to say your theme can’t change as you develop your ideas, but it will give you a starting point and put you in a much better position to write a solid story.

But how can you work out what your story theme is? How do you know so early in the process? I’ve got three ways to help you work this out

But first, what is theme?

What is story theme?

Theme is the overall message behind your story – the meaning you want readers to take away when they finish reading. 

Your theme is your worldview, your philosophy and moral lesson that you want to offer your readers. It’s an underlying principle or concept that will underpin your story.

Here are three ways to help you work out what your theme is.

What is your story theme? | The Editing Lounge

1. Know what you want to say in your story

Know what you want to say in your story | The Editing Lounge

Most writers write because they have something to say. They want readers to see their perspective. 

So, what point are you trying to make? What are you trying to prove or disprove? What issues do you want to tackle? Politics, disease, alcoholism, domestic abuse, murder, self-love, faith, acceptance of others? 

2. Know how your main character will change

The events in your plot should change your main character. Their internal change process is called their ‘character arc’. Your character’s arc should match the story’s theme. 

To identify how your character will change throughout the story ask yourself who the character is; how the story events will shape them, either for better or worse; what holds them back from happiness and fulfilment; how the character will succeed or fail at overcoming the obstacles in their way; and what kind of character they will be by the end of the story. 

When you’ve answered these questions, think about the themes that could arise from these answers. Then consider how your ideas match up to your ideas from the first section in this blog post.

Know how your character will change | The Editing Lounge

3. Know your genre

Know your genre | The Editing Lounge

Each genre has its own universal themes. For example, action novels tend to explore survival, life and death, and courage. Romance novels tend to explore friendship, romance, and intimacy. And mystery novels tend to explore justice, safety, and good vs. bad. When you know your genre, it’s much easier to pair it up with a theme.

Once you’ve thought about what you want your story to say, how your character will change, and what your genre is, you should be able to come up with a sentence that summarises your theme. Keep this sentence in mind while you write your draft and adjust it as you go.

The beauty of universal themes

Don’t try too hard when picking out your theme. It doesn’t have to be original. There are plenty of novels that run with themes like ‘love conquers all’ or ‘good defeats evil’. These are universal themes that readers don’t get tired of. (Instead, readers get tired of stories that express the same themes in the same ways, using the same genres, plots, and characters). 

So, it’s okay if your theme sounds generic or clichéd at the outset. It will evolve and become more detailed as you write. As long as you write an original, compelling story, you can adopt a universal theme.

The beauty of universal themes | The Editing Lounge

About Charlotte

Charlotte McCormac | Line Editor | Copyeditor | Content Writer | Shrewsbury | Oswestry

Charlotte is an award-winning writer and line/copyeditor who writes and edits for clients all over the world. She also works on the fiction team for Ambit, a UK literary and arts magazine. 

She holds an international literary prize from Hammond House Publishing Group, two writing-related degrees, various marketing certifications, and training certificates from the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, of which she is a Professional Member.

Charlotte’s work has appeared in several anthologies, magazines, and literary journals, including IndigomaniaDream Catcher, and The Curlew

She has also created a series of free self-editing cheat sheets to help new writers hone their fiction before sending their work off to a professional editor.

CIEP | Professional Member | The Editing Lounge