What Is a Theme of a Story?
In this article, learn what a theme of a story is, plus get some tips for writing a great theme for your book or screenplay. For more writing advice, check out my free online writing course.
What is a theme of a story?
A theme is a commentary about the world that the story makes.
Even though the events of a story are often focused on just a few characters and places, those events speak to the world in general. For example, a story where a vicious criminal gets away with murder at the end is making a very different commentary about society than a story where a vicious criminal is arrested at the end.
The story where the criminal gets away with the crime would be making a statement about the world being unjust, while the story where the criminal is captured would be making a statement about the world being just.
How do you write a great story theme?
Your theme emerges from the story events
You don't necessarily write your theme within the pages of your story, as you would a character description or plot event. Rather, the theme is a takeaway the audience would have after finishing your story.
That being said, though your theme may not be written on your pages, it should play an important role in the writing of your story. You should be mindful about the commentary on the world you'd like to make as a writer and choose a theme for your story early on. As you write, your theme can evolve, but having a solid starting point will help.
The characters and plot you create should be focused around your theme. For example, if you wanted to make a commentary about corruption, you may want to develop a character in your story who takes a bribe. The plot could then get into the consequences the character suffers after taking the bribe. If, for instance, you wanted to make a commentary about family dynamics, your story may not call for a character who takes a bribe.
Your protagonist's want and need play a key part in your story theme
Your protagonist should have a want - an external goal they pursue - and a need - an internal personal problem they should address to lead a better life.
Your story's two most impactful threads are the ones that follow your main character's want and need. Thus, they carry a lot of weight with your theme. By the end of your story, if your hero achieves their want and/or need vs. doesn't achieve their want and/or need, the commentary the story is making could be drastically different.
Let's say your main character has a want to win a big boxing match. Through the story, he trains really hard. If he wins the match at the end, your theme may be something like, "Hard work can lead to success." However, if your character loses the match at the end, your theme would instead be something like, "Despite hard work, success is never guaranteed."
For more advice on main characters, check out my post on character development for a protagonist.
Your story should have just one theme
When creating your theme, focus is critical. As mentioned, all the character and plot development of your story should revolve around your theme. If you try to make multiple commentaries about the world in one story, its events may feel unconnected.
Your story would have more force if you kept the events concentrated, all working in conjunction to declare a singular message about the world.
Want more writing tips?
I cover theme, characters, plot, and emotional impact in my free online writing class.
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Copyright 2023 Ted Galdi