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.
In 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?
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?
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