Theme seems to be one of those angst-triggering bogeymen that writers constantly wrestle with. But when you examine it closely, there’s really nothing complicated about it. Theme is simply the lesson the main character learns over the course of the story.
(Or, in the case of a tragic ending, the lesson they failed to learn.)
Every story, from the silliest comedy to the deepest work of literature, delivers a moral message on some level. It basically says “life is like this.”
Think about some of the most famous movie quotes of all time:
“There’s no place like home.”
“Greed is good.”
“Use the Force, Luke.”
All of those quotes point directly toward the theme of the story.
Example Themes from Literature
A theme can be any universal truth or statement about life. Common themes in literature include:
Love conquers all.
With great power comes great responsibility.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
The list goes on and on. The question is: In your story, what does the main character need to learn in order to achieve the ending they deserve?
How to Figure Out the Theme of Your Story
According to my highly unscientific poll, the vast majority of writers finish writing a book long before they figure out their theme. Totally understandable. Theme can seem like a tricky thing.
But sooner or later, you have to pin down your theme. If you don’t know what it is, you can’t use it to help your story achieve its full potential.
Luckily, your theme is hiding in plain sight. It’s already there on the page somewhere. Here’s how to find it:
1. Look at the beginning of your story. What is your main character like? How do they look at the world? What’s their flaw?
2. Now skip to the ending of your story. How has your main character changed? How have they grown? What do they know or believe differently now? (This difference represents their character arc, by the way.)
3. Figure out the life lesson, or truth about life, that this character had to learn along the way in order to reach the ending of the story. What principle did they absorb? That’s your theme.
Tragic characters and villains typically don’t learn the theme, or they learn it too late. That’s why the story ends badly for them.
Here’s an Example of Theme
See if you can spot the theme here:
In my novel It Happened One Doomsday, the main character starts out as a nobody, an under-rated shop owner struggling to find her way in a world full of powerful sorcerers. But then she meets a handsome guy who has a deadly supernatural problem only she can solve. To save him, she needs to embrace her own magic and become a sorceress, or else his curse will destroy the world.
Did you spot the theme there? What does she need to learn? If you didn’t see it, go back and reread the last paragraph.
She needs to embrace her own magic. That’s the theme. Everything in the story builds on that. Because if she doesn’t embrace her magic, become a true sorceress, grow as a person, she will be stuck in a dead-end career as an underachieving retailer.
And, incidentally, the world will also be doomed.
The point is, there’s a big life lesson she needs to learn. That lesson tells you the theme.
The Right Way to Write Down the Theme
When you jot down your theme in your notes, you can phrase it any way you want. There are no hard-and-fast rules about that.
For example, you could write it as a flat statement: “Embrace your own magic.”
Or it could be a conflict: “Being normal vs. embracing your magic.”
Or it could be a question: “Can you embrace your own magic and still lead a normal life?”
Any of those is fine. Whatever works best for you. Just keep it short. And keep it handy, too, because there are all sorts of ways you can use it to make your book stand out from the crowd.
3 Ways to Supercharge Your Story with Theme
Once you know what your theme is, you can subtly clue in your readers. And you do need to be subtle about it. You can’t pound the theme like a pulpit, or the reader will feel like you’re preaching.
But if you can gently point the reader in the right direction, they will become more invested in your story. They’ll have a deeper understanding of your main character, and they’ll root for that character to succeed.
How can you use theme to make your story better? Several ways:
1. Go back over the first few chapters of your novel. Find a spot where you can have a supporting character make a statement or ask the main character a question that is related to the theme. Something along the lines of: “You know what your problem is? You never ___.” Or: “You’re going to be stuck like this unless you ___.”
2. Later in the story, before your big climactic confrontation, there’s usually a dark, all-is-lost moment in the story. When your main character is at their low point, have them realize that they absolutely need to change. You can have a supporting character point out their flaw, or you can have them come to that realization on their own. However it happens, the main character needs to embrace the theme. And because of that, they will win in the end.
3. At the very end of your book, physically demonstrate how the character has changed. Put in an object, a line of dialogue, or an action that clearly shows the character has learned the theme. It doesn’t have to be as blatant as using the Force to help blow up the Death Star. But something along those lines.
Bonus Tip: Put Your Theme in Your Tagline
You can also use your theme to craft a powerful tagline for your book. A tagline is a phrase or brief sentence used on the cover of the book to catch the reader’s attention and get them interested.
You don’t have to directly use your theme word-for-word. But it gives you a good place to start. While looking at your theme, brainstorm five to ten possible taglines. Then try them out on your friends.
For example, here’s the tagline for my novel It Happened One Doomsday:
Can her magic save the world . . . before his curse destroys it?
It doesn’t directly say “embrace your magic,” but the idea is in there.
(By the way, if you’ve heard the term “log line” before, that’s something else. A log line is a one-sentence summary of your book, used for pitching or marketing purposes. For example, the log line I used for It Happened One Doomsday went something like this: “When a handsome mechanic with glowing red eyes pulls up in a possessed black muscle car, a crystal shop owner must discover her magic in order to save the world.” See the difference?)
Now It’s Your Turn
Are you ready to discover the theme in your book? Start by re-reading the beginning and ending of your story, and chart your main character’s change. See if you can pinpoint the moment your character started to see things in a new light. That will lead you toward your theme. Then, you can use it to buff up the three crucial thematic parts of your story, as well as create a powerful tagline.
When you’re done, look back over your notes. How did you do? Did this article help you? Leave me a comment and let me know, or contact me.
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