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Three Steps to Building Your Story’s Theme

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“What’s the theme?” asked English teacher. Yikes!

Remember that? Did the story even have a theme? Years ago I used to shun thinking about a theme for my story. Today, I embrace it as the underlying message we need to convey through our story. When you analyze the greatest stories, one thing is always evident – they all have a central theme. Stories that don’t embrace the concept of theme simply end up falling on its face.

What is theme?

As stated above it’s the underlying message we want to convey to the reader. In simpler terms it’s the inner journey that our main character takes. To be meaningful, the character (or characters) must learn an important lesson. For instance, here are several key lessons that characters in great stories learn:

  • Acceptance (of circumstances, or of self)
  • Fear (conquering it)
  • Trust (in others or of oneself)
  • Forgiveness (others or self)
  • Love (romantic love, self love, love in others)
  • Responsibility (to society – as in standing up for a cause, duty)
  • Redemption (accepting blame, gaining salvation)

STEP 1: Concept of Change

How many therapists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has to really want to change!

Change should not come easy to our characters. Difficult change follows the same five stages of grief as put forward by Kübler-Ross.

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

We can right an entire article on this but know that there are stages to go through before your character accepts and learns the theme.

STEP 2: Don’t follow a straight projectory to ultimate change

The five stages of grief provides for a nice springboard, but to spice things up you always want to throw your character in different directions. For instance, your character has been chosen by the King to fight the Dragon of the Black Death. You’re in denial and believe this to be a joke. When you see it’s no joke you get angry….then at that moment you decide to have your character run away. Problem solved! Your character is happy and everything is fine, until he finds out that the dragon is terrorizing the community where their significant other lives!

Now, your character can take up where they left off from the Kübler-Ross stages (Bargaining).

STEP 3: Keep the theme simple (Don’t add additional themes).

The third step is to keep the theme simple. What is your character supposed to learn? Acceptance? Redemption? Both? If you decide to add multiple themes you risk confusing your reader. Although some of you will disagree, I will argue that keeping your theme simple to ONE will result in the most effective story.

Additionally, my own strategy is to continually introduce your theme throughout the story. For instance if your theme is overcoming fear, I would show how fear (or the lack of it) affects various characters in the story. This gives the subconscious a great workout and ultimately drive home the message you want to convey.

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