Don't Know Your Story's Theme? Take a Look at Your Character's Arc

Don’t Know Your Story’s Theme? Take a Look at Your Character’s Arc

What separates a good story from a great one? We might throw out a lot of opinions, but mine is this: Your story’s theme is what will raise it above the pack, out of mere entertainment into something that sticks with readers, impacts their lives, and maybe even challenges them to grow. Awesomesauce!, you say. Great theme, here I come!, you say. But how do you find your story’s theme?

Half the problem with theme is that authors tend to look at it as if it exists in a vacuum. You’ve got a great story, so now you have to come up with an equally great theme to go along with it. But that doesn’t work any better than making a fab PB&J sandwich and then realizing you left out the veggies: better stick some spinach in there, right?

Theme isn’t an add-on. It isn’t a bonus feature. Your story’s theme is its heart, and, as such, it must be all of a piece with your plot and your characters’ arcs. So how do you find your story’s theme? Easy-peasy! Look no farther than your character’s arc.

Theme Is The Foundation of Your Story

In the October 2004 issue of Writer’s Digest, Martha Alderson explained:

The theme is the “why”—your reason for writing the story….

Why are you writing this story? Why are you writing about these characters? What is it about their journey that has drawn your heart? What is the core of the tale? Justice, mercy, love, revenge, self-discovery? Whatever it is that’s moving the characters is what’s also moving your story. That’s your theme.

Story by Robert McKeeIn his bravura book Story, Robert McKee writes that instead of the term “theme”:

I prefer the phrase Controlling Idea, for like theme, it names a story’s root or central idea, but it also implies function: The Controlling Idea shapes the writer’s strategic choices. It’s yet another Creative Discipline to guide your aesthetic choices toward what is appropriate or inappropriate in your story, toward what is expressive of your Controlling Idea and may be kept versus what is irrelevant to it and must be cut.

In other words, your theme is the lighthouse in your story’s sea. If you can identify your theme upfront, you’ll be able to keep your entire story on track. If any aspect of character or plot fails to contribute to this controlling idea of theme, then you know it’s probably extraneous.

So far, so good. But maybe you’ve already got a story in mind. Your characters are already involved in their journey. Their story has already started. It’s not like you can just pick any random theme and shoehorn it in–like that spinach in our no-longer-so-perfect PB&J.

How can you identify the right theme when all the other story elements arrive first?

Plot, Character Arc, and Theme: How They’re Connected and How They’re Different

Remember way back when we talked about how character arcs are powered by the conflicting Thing Your Character Wants and the Thing Your Character Needs? Nestled right between the two is where you’ll find your theme. Here’s a quick refresher of what these two Things are and how they work in a story.

The Thing Your Character Wants = Plot

The Thing Your Character Wants is the main story goal. For whatever reason, your character believes he needs this thing. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t. But whatever it is, it drives his every action in the story. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that this Want isn’t what he Needs.

The Thing Your Character Wants–the main story goal–is your story’s plot.

The Thing Your Character Needs = Theme

This is the fundamental need at the core of your character. It’s something he’s almost certainly unconscious of to some extent. He might even be in denial about it. But he will never be complete until he recognizes and fulfills this need. Thanks to a fundamental Lie He Believes–about either himself or the world–he either believes he doesn’t want the Need or doesn’t deserve the Need. This is the true goal of your story, but it’s a goal that’s going to be working largely under the surface.

The Thing Your Character Needs is your story’s theme.

The Thing Your Character Wants vs. the Thing Your Character Needs = Character Arc

Put these two Things together by forcing your character to grow to the point of being willing to sacrifice his Want in order to gain his Need–and suddenly you’ve got a character arc. All three–plot, theme, and character arc–are integral to one another. Your character arc will always drive your plot, and your theme will always be found at the heart of the arc. Figure out the fundamental questions your character will be asking in his journey through the plot–figure out the crux of his change or lack thereof–and you will have found the theme your story must tell.

The Best Way to Double-Check Your Story’s Theme

Once you’ve figured out the theme that is inherent to the heart of your story, take a moment to analyze whether this is really the best theme for this story. Might you get a better, more impactful theme if you were able to tweak your plot and character arc?

Double-check your story’s theme by summarizing it as briefly as possible. Is it something general like justice vs. mercy? Or is it something super-specific like A Christmas Carol‘s better to die a pauper than unloved?

Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol Ebenezer Scrooge Ghost of Christmas Past

The value of summing up your story’s theme like this is that it gives you a better sense of its relative originality and risk. Don’t settle for safe themes. Look for dangerous, controversial ones. You want to make readers think. You want to ask hard questions–not the same old questions that are asked over and over again. True originality is always found in theme. The braver and more honest your theme, the more original and true your story will be.

Take a moment to consider your story’s theme. Does it leap right out at you? Or do you have to do a little digging? And when you do find it, does it work in harmony with your plot and character arcs? Now think about how you can strengthen and refine it to create something truly special.

Tell me your opinion: What is your story’s theme? How is it reflected in your character’s arc?

Don't Know Your Story's Theme? Take a Look at Your Character's Arc

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. You are one big life saver. Thanks… Maybe I have mentioned it to you that I am participating this NaNo’s. So I was superly into my story when everything suddenly started to fall apart. The spark gone and my progress non-existent. Maybe, this is where the actual problem was. I will get to a brainstorming session right away 😀
    Thanks again!

  2. I totally agree. Theme is so essential to great writing. I love to write, but sometimes I ask myself why I’m writing THIS story, and then I realize my theme is either a slap-on or it doesn’t exist at all.

    I discovered some writing tips from one of Pixar’s writers. He mentioned that theme is something you discover in your story as you write it; it’s not something you decide upon and outline into your story. Otherwise it’s not authentic.

    I think I agree with that . . . but what’s your opinion on that idea?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I both agree – and disagree. Theme has to start as an inherent ingredient of the story: a nugget that’s already buried within the premise and the characters. Like I said in the post, it can’t be shoehorned in. But by the time outlining/writing phase rolls around, that’s when we need to start consciously thinking about theme and figuring out the best way to expand, deepen, and implement it.

  3. thomas h cullen says:

    Bang on! Theme is story – you don’t have to be conscious of it, however what the story is and how you write it ought to subconsciously be informed by your theme:

    As an model example, take ‘The Representative’. Part of its core theme is purity of purpose, and of life, hence its tight written mode of condensed expression, and of minimalism.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Theme almost always starts in the subconscious, but it’s always valuable to claim it consciously so that we can better implement it.

  4. I use the same theme in every story: grace. It’s an easy one for me, because it’s also the theme of my life story. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Guilt and redemption are ones I keep coming back to. I think many authors tend to explore and re-explore different facets of the same themes in all their works.

  5. I literally just wrote down a page-long note about the arc of one of my characters, and it absolutely encompasses the entire story’s theme. In fact, looking at the arcs of each character who has one – they all do. Every character arc in my WIP is related to this theme, which also directly drives the plot as well.

    And then I read this no more than one hour later, and it’s like you’ve read my mind. Craziest of all is how often this happens. I’m very happy that you and I think on a very similar wavelength, because it means I’m headed in the right direction. How refreshing it is to interact with somebody who thinks so similarly to myself – no matter the means nor the distance.

    Once again, I extend to you my gratitude for helping me decipher the brambles in my brain.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Spot on! When all the character arcs reflect that one main theme, you know you’ve got a tight, cohesive story on your hands.

  6. I’ve noticed over the years that I only finish writing stories that have a compelling theme. If the story doesn’t feel like it has to be told, I stop writing it. The theme for my YA Contemporary is that hatred always leads to violence. Neither sides wins. The theme for my MG mystery is that science is cool and learning can be fun and educational.

  7. Very interesting read! Just like all of your articles. Really helps me think about my stories in a new way.

  8. What you called “theme” here is also known as “moral premise”, isn’t it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Is essence, yes. “Theme” is a little more all encompassing than the moral premise, but the moral premise is definitely at its heart. I’ll actually be touching on this a bit in next Sunday’s post.

  9. I just came back to this post through your latest email, and it couldn’t have arrived at a better time! Really just struggling with characters within my theme and plot right now. This helped me clear up what my character should be doing and how to give the plot a satisfying track. Just wanted to say thanks for your posts!

  10. I’m learning so much from your posts and podcast. They came as a Good Samaritan to the one lost in deep wood. Thank you!

    I was mulling over the possible themes for my story in-progress. Eventually it occurred to me that it’s nothing more or less then the story of “death and resurrection”. It came as a surprise, ranging from – No, are you crazy? – to – Of course, how could I not see it before.

    This is scary theme, because first story with similar theme that comes to mind is New Testament, the story of Jesus. I am totally and decidedly dissociated with anything that has to do with organized religion. But I wonder if you would be willing to take on a challenge of analyzing the story of Jesus from the writer’s perspective – the theme, the plot, the structure, protagonist, antagonist, climax, all the good staff you’ve been talking about. After all, this is one of The Stories, that kept humanity’s imagination captivated for 2,000 years… Thanks 🙂

  11. Thanks for this article! It made me think of the “premise” in an old craft book (originally for playwrights) called “The Art of Dramatic Writing,” by Lajos Egri. His definition of dramatic premise implies characters and conclusion, so once you figure out your premise (whether you start there or figure out as you write), you then have to make sure that you’ve chosen the best characters and situation to prove the dramatic premise. He gives the example of “True love defies even death,” which implies lovers as characters, that there is a conflict that would separate them, and that they would choose death over separation (spoiler alert: it’s the premise of “Romeo and Juliet”).

    I love it when two ways of talking about writing harmonize so nicely! It makes sense, because good stories have the same underlying principles. 🙂

  12. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says:

    I think my theme is the possibility of accepting difficult and changing circumstances as long as you choose love and support over superficial security. The two supporting characters to the protagonist have already had this realization/decision. The protagonist is struggling with it, because he has been given and taught the opposite by the antagonist.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Okay, so you have the gist of your novel. Action, Action, Trial, Sad, Action, Bad Ass Ending… But, have you clearly defined your theme? Well, I didn’t. Every time I forced words out onto the page, something was missing. How did I go from pounding out a great story to a complete stop with laptop throwing frustration? I created an outline, went scene by scene, tried beat sheets, tried character sheets, and I don’t even remember what else, but although it was a strong story idea, that certain something was eluding me. Then I came across K.M. Weiland’s post about theme. […]

  2. […] Okay, so you have the gist of your novel. Action, Action, Trial, Sad, Action, Bad Ass Ending… But, have you clearly defined your theme? Well, I didn’t. Every time I forced words out onto the page, something was missing. How did I go from pounding out a great story to a complete stop with laptop throwing frustration? I created an outline, went scene by scene, tried beat sheets, tried character sheets, and I don’t even remember what else, but although it was a strong story idea, that certain something was eluding me. Then I came across K.M. Weiland’s post about theme. […]

  3. […] important questions to ask in discovering your character’s arc (and your story’s theme) always begin […]

  4. […] for graphic – KM Weiland, shared on her blog here, but also featured in her writing craft book, Outlining Your Novel […]

  5. […] Plot + Character = Theme. What separates a good story from a great one? We might throw out a lot of … […]

  6. […] author K.M. Weiland explained on her […]

Speak Your Mind

*