How to Write Unique Themes

How to Write Unique Themes

How to Write Unique Themes PinterestHere’s a mind-bender for you: the best story themes are both universal and unique. But how does that even work? How can you learn to how write unique themes that say something fresh and new—and yet are resonant to every person on the planet?

Good question.

This is something I’ve been mulling lately after a comment from Chris Babu on my post “How to Intertwine Plot, Character, and Theme in Every Scene.” He pointed out:

The last several books (bestsellers) I’ve read have had themes that were so obvious and timeworn. Four hundred pages of story just to make a point everyone agrees with. This drives me nuts…. Give me something timely, teach me something, make me look at something a new way, make me think/decide, say something controversial, but for crying out loud don’t let the moral of your story be something everyone already knows.

Although any thematic presentation is likely to be superior to a story with no theme, it’s true that phoned-in themes drastically weaken otherwise original stories.

We’ve all read a bazillion romances that didn’t have much to say beyond love is important or action stories that triumphantly recited good always wins. We’ve all read them, watched them, and for the most part, promptly forgotten them. The writing might otherwise have been pretty good—enjoyable characters, snappy dialogue, sharp plot. But because the themes were lavished with about as much thought as the quips in a fortune cookie, the stories never made us think. They found convenient, well-worn niches inside our memories, curled up, and went to sleep—never to be heard from again.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not where I want my stories to end up in my readers’ brains. And yet if you want to talk about a universal theme, let’s talk about this one: There’s nothing new under the sun.

How are you supposed to figure out how to write unique themes that steer away from clichés, stimulate readers’ minds, and enhance your plot and characters?

Can You Write Unique Themes?

Think of a unique theme. Yep. Right now. Just sit back for a sec and see how long it takes you to think of a totally original theme. I’ll do it too. Here’s ten hours of the Jeopardy theme song to help us out.

Well, I got zilch. How about you?

Sure, I came up with what maybe seemed like a few unique angles. But underlying the specifics of any idea, there always seems to be some peskily simplistic and universal premise. Yep, there’s lovejusticemercypainempowermentdeathhopedespairdeceittruth, fear, and courage.  Guess the Greeks covered it all back in 700 BC. The rest of us might as well pack it up and pack it in. No unique themes left for us to play with.

Fortunately, however, this is where the balance between unique themes and universal themes comes into play.

Life itself is universal. That’s inescapable. The narrative of life is one we all share.

And the result is the emergence of deeply archetypal patterns. The very structure of story and character arc are founded in the common personal experiences we all share. The reason these basic structural premises work is because we, as humans, resonate with them. If we changed them up too drastically, readers would fail to recognize them, fail to empathize them with, and, frankly, fail to care about them.

Archetypes go even deeper than story structure and character arcs. Life and death, parents and children, joy and suffering, mercy and cruelty, hope and despair—these and so many more are the fundamental premises of life itself. To write a story so unique that it avoided all these ideas is not only impossible, but ultimately pointless.

Stories are about finding commonality. As readers and viewers we seek commonality with the characters on the page and the screen and, through them, with their writers. Deep down, what we’re really looking for in a story experience is not the unique, but in fact the familiar.

In contrast to everything the title of my post seems to be saying, I’m going to posit that themes never get old. I will never get tired of the victorious feeling I get from a story that tells me love conquers all or good is stronger than evil.

It’s not themes we get tired of. Rather, it’s the same themes being told in the same way by the same story. In short, it isn’t archetypal themes, plots, and characters that get old, but rather the ways in which they are combined.

3 Thoughts on How to Write Unique Themes

The difference between a unique theme and a hackneyed theme actually has much less to do with the theme itself than it does with the execution. Creating freshness and vibrancy doesn’t mean you have to posit something radical. It does mean whatever you posit must be radically and honestly personal to you. Tell me good triumphs over evil (again), and I may close the book yawning. Tell me good triumphs over evil as if your life depends on it—and I’ll remember you.

Here are four tips for refining your thematic ideas to find their most passionately and personally unique cores.

1. Look for Your Character’s Theme

Theme is always rooted in character. Your characters, specifically your protagonist, will tell you what your theme is about. Even if you try to tack on another theme, what your story is really about is whatever is at the heart of your character’s internal struggle.

This means you can’t just dream up some wild and unexpected thematic premise and squirt it onto your story like Dijon mustard onto a casserole. You have to start with what you’ve already got. Look at your character—who she is and what she wants—and look at what she’s doing in the plot.

Now look harder.

Let’s say you’re me and you’re writing a historical adventure story called Wayfarer (which, it so happens, I am). It’s a coming-of-age story about a kid who gets superpowers and runs around the city figuring out what it means to be the good guy and save the day.

On its surface, that’s a story about good versus evil, with maybe growing up thrown in as a side dish. Or maybe, like Spidey, he’s learning that with great power comes responsibility. All of those ideas are inherent within the story’s premise. But there’s nothing unique there. More to the point: there’s nothing personal there.

So we dig deeper. We look at what specific struggles this character is facing.

  • What does he want?
  • Why does he want it?
  • What is he willing to selflessly sacrifice to get it?
  • What is he willing to selfishly sacrifice?
  • What will he gain and what he will lose by the story’s end?
  • How will he have changed?

When asking yourself these questions about your character, the right answers probably won’t be immediately evident. You’ll have to think about them, roll them around in your brain. You’ll have to recognize and reject most of the obvious answers. In the process, you may find your conception of the character and plot evolving into something deeper right alongside your theme.

2. Look for Your Theme

Your characters will give you specific manifestations of the themes that are most pertinent to your plot. But your characters are really just extensions of you. To tap into the kind of passionate honesty that creates earnestly unique themes, you have to first ask yourself some probing questions.

1. What’s a Specific Question You’re Asking About Life Right Now?

Boring themes are answers. Love conquers all. Yawn. But reframe it as a question: Does love really conquer all? Once you find a question to which you honestly don’t know the answer, you know you’ve found an interesting thematic possibility.

Consider the issues that are most on your heart right now. What do you find yourself constantly chewing on? Maybe it’s a political or social question, or maybe it’s a deeply personal question about yourself or your relationships. Maybe it’s a question about an illness or work struggle you’re trying to figure out.

Whatever the case, I guarantee there’s grist for the mill right there. In writing about it honestly, you may just find some of your own answers along the way.

2. What’s a General Question You Feel You’re Always Asking About Life?

Don’t stop at the “little” life questions right there in front of your face. Look up and look out. What are the big questions that it seems like you’re always asking in one way or another?

I realized just this week that one of the themes that crops up again and again in my stories—and perhaps most blatantly in Wayfarer—is that of identity. My characters are always asking who they are and what their purpose is. Although I don’t deliberately insert this premise into my stories, it’s always there because it’s central to many of the questions I slowly ponder in the back of my own mind all the time.

3. What’s a Virtue You Feel Is Undervalued?

If you’re writing a story with a Positive Change Arc and a happy ending, then your theme will probably focus on affirming a virtue—love, courage, justice, mercy, kindness, self-sacrifice. If this so, don’t just pick the obvious one—love for romance and courage for action. Instead, choose one that is important to you and that you feel is either undervalued in the world or underrepresented in fiction.

There’s a line I often think about in Captain America: Civil War.

Cap sincerely tells a frustrated Tony Stark, “I don’t mean to make things difficult.”

To which, Tony gripes ironically, “I know, because you’re a very polite person.”

It made me realize two reasons why Cap is one of my favorite characters in recent stories.

1. His politeness is actually very unique. Few modern characters—much less action protagonists—are noted for their politeness. It fills a gap that most of us probably didn’t even realize was there.

2. As a “very polite” person myself, I resonate with him. Since it’s a “virtue” I appreciate, I both enjoy sharing the commonality with a character onscreen and seeing a character admirably balance the difficult aspects (being polite without turning into a pushover with no boundaries).

Make a list of the top five virtues or good qualities you value in others and try to cultivate in yourself. How can you thematically explore the difficulties, downfalls, and rewards of these traits in an honest way?

4. What’s a Vice That Scares You?

Where there’s a virtue, there’s a vice. Maybe you’re writing a dark story with a Negative Change Arc. Or maybe you just want to explore the downfall of your antagonist. Either way, consider the flipside of your favorite virtues. What are the vices you see that really get under your skin? Murder, rape, child abuse, substance abuse—those are all big ones. But look at the littler ones too—white lies, verbal insensitivity, maybe even workaholicism.

Look specifically for something that gives you a visceral reaction. If it scares you deep in the pit of your stomach, you know you have to write about it. Or, if it’s a lesser vice, maybe it’s just something that irks you, that makes you hot under the collar, that makes you want to lash back with some equally unattractive vice of your own.

We all deplore the actions human take that hurt one another—from war right on down to petty shoplifting. But don’t mount a moral high horse just because it’s obvious. Choose a vice that has personal significance for you—and use your writing to find out why.

3. Ground Familiar Themes in Fresh Milieus

Consider some of the stories you’ve read lately that just don’t have that nice clean fresh smell. Chances are good this is not because you’ve already seen this particular character, plot, or theme too many times before—but rather because you’ve seen all of them together too many times before.

Original stories are rarely stories that blare their uniqueness in every aspect. Instead, they’re stories that take a fresh look at otherwise familiar elements.

  • Star Wars was famously a new riff on westerns.

Star Wars New Hope Luke Skywalker Princess Leia Han Solo

  • The Book Thief is a predictable Holocaust story that became beloved because of its earnestness and its unexpected narrator.

Book Thief Movie

  • The Princess Bride is an utterly familiar fairy tale told in a completely unfamiliar way.

Westley Princess Bride Ending Cary Elwes

Arguably, none of the themes in these stories is unique. But the stories themselves feel fresh because the messages and milieus used to convey the themes are unexpected.

Archetypal characters, plots, and themes will never grow old. As long as humans are living, loving, fighting, wondering, suffering, laughing, and dying—the fundamental things apply.

But if you find yourself writing a certain type of story that always portrays a certain type of theme, stop and question yourself.

Would this theme have something better to say in a different story, a different genre, a different plot?

Or, conversely, would a different theme make everything else about this story absolutely pop?

Finding the right theme for the right story is the secret to writing stories that are universal and yet feel utterly unique and original. Don’t give up until find one!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you think is the hardest part of figuring out how to write unique themes? Tell me in the comments!

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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. Chris Bailey says:

    The questions you’ve asked are intriguing, and well worth spending some time with. Universal truths can’t be unique. It’s the way a character wrestles with truth that touches a chord of recognition in the reader. The story feels both thin and heavy-handed when the theme is obvious. Which is not to say that the theme should be deliberately obscured–but that the individual character’s struggle with the theme is what matters most. Thanks for the tips!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I have a theory that the simpler the foundational thematic Truth and the more complex the “message” of the story itself in relation to that theme, the more unique the theme feels.

  2. I love everything about this post.

    Another fun thing to play around with is taking a common theme, like sacrifice, and applying it to something not so common. Yeah, we get the hero is willing to sacrifice his life— but what about his reputation? Or maybe his right to be remembered? Or maybe all three?

    Or if we take the theme of courage, we could totally flip it on its head by exploring how wisdom is the better part of valor, and that sometimes it takes more courage to walk away than it does to jump in swinging.

    The concepts are universal. The circumstances and focus don’t have to be.
    Anyway, awesome article. 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Agreed. There are truths in all cliched statements, but they are rarely the whole truth. If we can look past the obvious to other facets, we find good stuff that hasn’t been over-explored.

    • Shakespeare wrote that discretion was the better part of valor, but that was Falstaff’s excuse in Henry IV Part 1 to walk away from a bad situation. It was played for laughs.

  3. I tried to do this in my novel. I wanted different themes. Usually, a story about mermaids has the mermaid trying to keep it a secret, then falling in love with a human. The big reveal is at the end. I decided to have thousands of women all over the world become mermaids, so it couldn’t be a secret. Instead of focusing on romance, I had them helping the US government stop a Cold War era weapon. There is some romance, but it’s not the focus of the story. I even have one character describe how it would go in a novel, then say, “This isn’t a novel. This is real life.” Real life doesn’t always follow a standard plot line.

  4. This post makes me think of one of my favorite books: `The Black Cauldron’ by Lloyd Alexander. His theme is honor, but he puts a different spin on it by asking the tough question. What if being honorable, and doing the right thing means sacrificing the chance to LOOK like you’ve done the right thing- the chance to be a hero? It’s a really powerful book because it doesn’t give easy answers, or even easy questions.

  5. Jason P. says:

    The questions you posited about the character to help find theme will be very helpful for me. Thanks!

  6. This is just what I needed this week! Thank you! I’ve been worried my theme is cliche and overdone, but this has given me plenty to think about and work with as I edit. I love what you said about seeing “all of them together” as well; it really puts things into perspective.

  7. This is fabulous! It reminds me of a point you’ve made before: you can’t separate being a good writer from being a good person. A story sometimes CAN convey wisdom its writer doesn’t actually have, which is a miraculous thing — but we can’t expect our stories to do so consistently. As Proverbs says, “Get wisdom! Get understanding!”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally. I’m reading Madeleine L’Engle’s fabulous Walking on Water right now, in which she says something along the lines of how her stories are often smarter than she is in real life. They prove that her faith is greater than she what she consciously knows.

  8. Michael says:

    Making some notes based on this, I think this stuff is where I am at in regards to doing a major rewrite of my fantasy novel. Being clear on these types of issues makes writing much more focussed and develop a clear vision of where you are going. I knew where I was going in terms of plot but had undeveloped themes, amongst other issues, so this has been very helpful. Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Honestly, writing this article helped me figure out how to tighten up my themes in my WIP as well!

  9. Thanks, K. M. for another great article.

  10. This was thought-provoking and validating! I am revising my historical fiction novel and your post made me ferl good about how I’ve approached theme. In this book, it’s charater-driven while being personal for me.
    Thanks!

  11. Megan Brummer says:

    And this is why the quest to write something meaningful can be so downright terrifying! Bleeding at the typewriter, so to speak. I love the challenge here to dig deep, find the visceral reaction, and write it out.

    Granted, I don’t *have* to let anyone read it after that…haha. But then where’s the fun in that?

    Thanks for the tips and questions to mull!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The scariest part is facing our truths ourselves. Once we’ve done that, sharing them with others is comparatively easy.

  12. For me it’s picking one that works for the character and story. I’ve got so much I want to talk about I have to remind myself to not try to tell every story in one story lol. At the moment, in draft 2 of this story, I’m learning I will need to go back (in the next draft) and choose a theme to follow through on, and I’m learning how difficult it is to be consistent. It’s not just flinching when I hurt my poor character again, it’s not being too obvious and forcing a reaction I don’t want. I enjoy the challenge, though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah, totally. When theme serves plot and character–and vice versa–you know it’s all working.

  13. I belong to East Texas Writers Guild (had to give a little plug here!) and we just held our annual conference this past weekend. We had 4 wonderful speakers, but I wish you had been among them. I love your approach to developing theme and characters within the theme–especially using a negative approach, which is something I never really thought of doing. But you have given great ideas and I will not let them fly away from your page. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Aww, shucks. Thanks for the kind words, Patricia. All the best with your theme! 🙂

  14. Should the very last 3 be a 5? (3. Ground Familiar Themes in Fresh Milieus)

    Too much philosophy taints my theme, and I fight everyday to keep my theme pure.

    In another life in another country I was a polite editor and a PIA.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. I had to go check, but for once, my numbered lists *aren’t* messed up. :p The 3 in question is part of the larger list. The numbers above it are a sublist under the previous heading.

  15. Lance Haley says:

    Amazing how over these past four years I have been following you, everything that appears so complicated about writing is made easy by your insight.

    Damn you’re good, girl! And we are all lucky to have you as a mentor…

  16. How’s this for a theme? Good triumphs over evil momentarily but at the end, it’s the good who ends up on the wrong side of the law.

  17. Dennis Strack says:

    Great post, KM. That’s why I thought the movie Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle was so great because, even though so many movies have been made based on video games, this one was different from the others. The characters in the real world got trapped into a video game with video game rules. Not to mention, the movie was just hilarious.

  18. Garrett says:

    I truly agree with you in regards to looking for theme in character and especially, looking for themes in yourself. What I’ve noticed about myself, much like you, are deep convictions about topics and issues are generally the themes that I explore in my stories. They’re often the hidden inequities in my life. A lot of the time, these aren’t even things I’m consciously aware of until I really start to hash out my character’s points of views and realize what’s being said. So again, I think for anyone trying to write their story with unique feeling thematics, should definitely take your advice and explore THEMSELVES intimately.

    The other thing I think that’s important to address, is that “theme” is developed by creating varying perspectives on an issue which is central to the story. Presenting these perspectives in such a way that the most appropriate one, according to the author, moves to the forefront conveys theme to us, the reader. Theme never lives in a vacuum; it needs friction from conflict which is bred from comparing different value standards.

    One of the things I’ve learned while studying Dramatica, which I think is pretty nifty, is the extraordinary amount of options one has to explore in regards to thematics.

    Based on the Dramatica Table of Story Elements (http://dramatica.com/resources/assets/dramatica-structure-chart.pdf), thematics are wide-ranging depending on the conflict in question. No longer do discussions of vice and virtue in regards to morality, have to be the overly treaded path of exploration. As Jim Hull states it, “‘Self Interest and Morality’ provide a sliding scale for evaluating “ruthless ambition.” Same with “greed,” “generosity,” and “jealousy. … [these] reside in the same limited location of the narrative model; the same story told over and over again.”

    But if you look at the Table of Elements under the “variations” (theme) level in just ONE OF FOUR areas of conflict, we have:

    Morality vs. Self Interest
    Approach vs. Attitude
    Pre-Requisites vs. Pre-Conditions
    Strategy vs. Analysis
    Experience vs. Skill
    Wisdom vs Enlightenment
    Instinct vs. Conditioning
    Interpretation vs. Senses

    There’s three other focuses of conflict and each have 16 different thematic focuses based on the human model of psychology. Spending time to define the focuses and understand them can expand one’s vocabulary of thematic topics. However, with that said… themes are not simply things you plug-n-play into a story. Like you related, they’re things we deeply connect with and if we don’t, others will easily be able to separate the wheat from the chaff!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. And Dramatica is great for this (Robert McKee’s Story has a ton of good stuff along these lines as well). I need to re-read Dramatica. I got so much out of it the first time around, but I feel like I hardly scratched its surface.

      • Garrett says:

        Agreed. Robert McKee has some great stuff in his book, (he has a second that just came out about Dialogue, which I haven’t read yet)!

        Honestly, the Dramatica book is great, but has so many missed opportunities when it comes to connecting the powerful theory with everyday, laymen’s understanding. My growing understanding of the theory didn’t come so much from the book as it did Jim Hull’s blog (narrativefirst.com). Jim’s worked with the theory since its inception in the late 90’s and is a pro at all things Dramatica (he currently teaches and helps clients with the theory in motion picture development). Jim’s able to take concepts the book merely defines, and explode them in a way that makes sense and connects logically.

        If you want to grow your knowledge on Dramatica, I wouldn’t recommend re-reading the book. Instead, go to NarrativeFirst.com, then at the top of the page, click “inside narrative first,” then “articles.” Start at the very bottom of the page for the oldest articles and work your way up. That’s what I did and through that (aside from using the software) have really built my appreciation for the theory and how to implement it successfully. 🙂

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Thanks. I’ll check that out. I do much better when I’m able to read a book, rather than Internet articles, but I totally agree that Dramatica is regrettably unapproachable in its presentation.

          • Garrett says:

            I hear ya. I actually spent an hour or so and went through and saved them all individually to my Pocket (getpocket.com) account so I could read them later on my tablet, haha (I’ve done so with many of your articles, too!) And yes, the book *does* read like the inner-workings of a Mad Scientist ;-p

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

            Smart! The interesting thing about Dramatica is that they supposedly came up with while purposefully avoiding the influence of other systems, such as McKee’s.

  19. K. M., you gave me so much to think about.

    I am of the school theme emerges from plot and conflict.
    Then again, I write science fiction which tends to be plot oriented.

    However, you bring several important arguments, like finding a new spin on universal themes and focusing on undervalued virtues.

    By the way, I wonder how you feel about novels who hit the reader over the head with the theme? I have read three in the past month (Walkaway, New York 2140, and Amberlough) who feel more like political propaganda than a novel.

    As usual, another helpful and insightful post.

    By the way, your work in progress sounds lots of fun!

  20. Beth Farmer says:

    Very thought-provoking. You provided a meaningful way to approach theme based on personal “themes”. This makes a lot of sense, and I’m sure imbues characters with more realism. I found this post especially helpful.

    I don’t usually read blockbusters, but a couple of years ago, I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I made it all the way through by sheer determination. In the end, the only person who garnered any empathy was the husband’s sister, a secondary character. I guess the book was clever, and may have presented an adequate portrait of a psychopath, but I found it boring and don’t understand why it was such a great success. Did I miss the theme?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t read it myself. Sounds like it probably feature Negative Change Arcs though.

  21. Julian Cox says:

    I have to tell on myself and am laughing at myself in the process. When I first got your post I had some preconceived thoughts blasting through my head and then I decided to put them back on the shelf and read the post in its entirety.

    It was like you literally jumped in my head and began nailing the very points I was considering in my dreamed up rebuttal. I was totally floored. Therefore, I have not too much to add to this but must say I was like right on with every point you made.

    Since there is nothing new under the sun it is very much not seeing the same ole as same ole but realizing it with what you have to bring to the table. It also takes the guts to allow yourself the ability to retell that same old story in your own unique way. I feel this is the breaking point when people are too timid about stepping out on the same limb but being bold enough to just stake down their flag and say this is now my limb and will dress it up however I please.

    When we are willing to claim it as our own and just own it as our own it now becomes ours and gives us the liberty to do what we want with it. Of course there is always that voice is it really okay to do this. My answer is a resounding yes, who cares what you may think they think do it anyhow and just enjoy yourself in the process. Some will like it, some will love it others may want nothing to do with it. I believe in the end as long as you are satisfied that means the most. You can’t please every body just try to please most including yourself.

    Also can you please take some time to get out of my head, lol.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hah. Sorry. I’ll stay out of your head from now on. 😉

      And this: “I believe in the end as long as you are satisfied that means the most.”

      Totally agree!

  22. A timely article in my world! In my current WIP, I’ve been trying to write outside my comfy genre only to find that I’m continually lapsing back into it. Normally I write Contemporary Christian Women’s Fiction. Sometimes it’s a little light-hearted, with heavy moments thrown in. Like real life. We aren’t all comedy or drama, we’re a mixture of both in varying degrees.

    I wanted to write something intense. It’s harder to do than I first imagined. During what should be a tension-filled scene, suddenly I see some humor in it and off I go. Tension totally gone. (I spent some minutes thinking here and paused in my writing.) But if I were to look myself in the face honestly, I use humor to avoid issues I’d rather not deal with. Oh dear. I may have just diagnosed my genre problem and maybe my own issues as well.

    I will be exploring the answers to the questions in your post. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s good to stretch ourselves. But I wouldn’t fight your natural inclinations too hard. Write what you *want* to write, not what you feel you should write.

  23. Great post.
    I’ve got some experience in academic research and I’ve always thought the theme was like the thesis for the novel. In both scenarios the question is pivotal for guiding the work whether it be which research variables are studied and controlled or which charscter/plot points are included and expanded upon.

    I admit up until this post my ‘thesis’ and sub-thesis weren’t consciously related. Now I can see my theme isn’t ‘equality’ but ‘how do societies achieve social change (eg equality)?’

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally.

      I really like phrasing themes as questions. There’s usually some simple one-word theme inherent within the question, but the question itself is much more specific and useful.

  24. Thanks for this post! It’s a lot easier to complain about stale themes in books (me) than to come up with solutions. I’m glad you did the hard thinking to nail down the heart of the issue and propose some concrete actions. You made a great point about picking themes that affirm a virtue, but not going the obvious way. That may be what bothered me about the books I recently read. For example, a story about beauty where the theme is also about beauty (beauty is only skin deep). If it instead were about courage perhaps it wouldn’t have felt so obvious. I think what bugged me so much, other than the forgettable read, was watching these terrific authors squander an opportunity to make their stories so much more memorable. They got lazy about theme, went the predictable route, and as you said, phoned it in. I personally like tackling themes that are near to your heart, like social or political causes, in stories where you wouldn’t expect them. Theme has become one of my favorite parts of writing. It’s one of the best ways to set your story apart, because a universal theme presented in a unique way makes for a unique book. Take fantasy. There are many thousands of fantasy novels, and sure maybe your magic system is sort of special, but odds are it’s been done before and your fantasy is actually generic with different characters/world. On the other hand, what if the theme of your otherwise standard fantasy is that every life counts, and it offers a parallel narrative to the worldwide refugee crisis? All the sudden your book has real meaning, and may cause people to look at an important issue in a way they never have because they sympathized with your characters (as long as it’s handled honestly/subtly and not all preachy). You gave me some new ideas too 🙂 Thanks again.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks so much for getting me thinking about this subject!

      Although it had its problems, I really enjoyed Netflix’s “blockbuster” Bright because of how it introduced applicable themes of racism in off-kilter ways that were definitely thought-provoking.

  25. Love this post! Love the part especially when you talk about Asking honest questions, Finding the Virtues and the Vices…

    At the end of your post you wrote: … if you find yourself writing a certain type of story that always portrays a certain type of theme, stop and question yourself….

    Where can I find more exposition on “Type of Stories” matched with “certain type of theme”? Just curious if you or others haven written on this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s not something I’ve written on directly. I would encourage you to make a list of books and movies you enjoy in a certain genre and try identifying the themes. If a pattern emerges, you know you’ve found something that’s already overdone.

  26. Marilyn Carvin says:

    Revising and had the feeling of too many scattered “themes” in my historical novel. When written down as questions it all came together, and I could see how a few choice words from the “black sheep” of the cast will help pull the threads in the plot together. Thank you! Brilliant!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Brilliant. Complexity in themes that all resonant to the same chord are fantastic.

  27. What about disagreeing with these themes. Good doesn’t triumph in the end for example? I think such a story would be much more believable but would anybody read it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. That’s why themes are best when they ask questions rather than assuming answers.

  28. I wonderful post. Full of thought and food for thought. I will most certainly archive it to read when I’m crafting my next novel/ Thank you.

  29. Don King says:

    It’s crazy because I’m certain I did some of these suggestions before I started my latest novel. Now that it’s been finished, I’ll go back and analyze characters’ motivations and examine my themes more closely. My basic question going in was as follows: Is it really such a great idea to erase memories, even when they’re traumatic? For instance, the soldier re-entering the civilian world with all his baggage from war. Wouldn’t it be ‘healing” to put them in a chamber, like they do with deep sea divers, and when they got out, their gruesome memories would be gone? Or is there anything valuable about going through the tough stuff in life? I agree that so much depends upon the execution to create the freshness. Once again, I think you nailed it with practical tips to bump our skills up a few notches! I look forward to Wayfarer!

  30. Sarah Gilbert says:

    LOVE THIS! I like themes and am a thematic writer. I like that a theme can be small and simple, like the value of politeness. This idea could go so many places. Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes the smaller themes actually end up being much more powerful, thanks to their intimacy.

  31. I was thinking about this yesterday, oddly enough.
    In writing scenes where the protagonist would state his intentions felt wrong, it wasn’t right for him to speak his mind aloud like that. He wouldn’t bother, because he’s selfish and has no respect for others.
    It made me wonder why I ended up writing him like that (’cause that certainly wasn’t the intention, it just happened.)
    But looking inwards, I know why. Because I am selfish, eventhough I don’t want to be. I struggle with greed, and actively try to be kinder, more thoughtful towards other people. I wish it came naturally to me to be like that, instead of constantly reminding myself that I’m being selfish.
    Despite this, I know what it’s like to altruistic, to do something selfless because it will make someone else happy.
    But my protagonist doesn’t give a hoot about that, he’s unfiltered. He hasn’t learnt his lesson yet, it hasn’t been proven to him that his own self-serving nature is making his life a hell of a lot harder than it ought to be.
    So what if what he wants is something he can only obtain through selflessness?
    I smell a theme 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Kudos to you for being brave enough to face this aspect of yourself–personally, in this comment, and especially in your book. Immediately makes me interested in the story!

  32. DragonGeek says:

    I’m having some trouble with my theme because you’re not supposed to know it until the very end. My character is a shapeshifter who can turn into a small pegasus (the only one of her kind, not part of a secret community), and the entire story, she’s struggling to keep it a secret. It’s only at the end that she decides to, instead, just reveal herself. And therin lies the theme, but it’s a bit of a twist, and I’d like to keep it that way. And yet, I can’t leave it with no buildup. It has to feel logical, but not predictable. It’s certainly a balancing act, but I’m learning a lot from it!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Theme infuses the entire story. Although you can save certain developments within the theme until the end, the theme itself must be present from the beginning.

  33. My experience as a reader regarding themes has been exactly like Chris Babu’s experience, as he said, “obvious and timeworn” … same old, same old, same old. As a writer of fiction, I feel very strongly that coming up with fresh takes on themes is critically important. KM, your suggestions for accomplishing this are spot on, and I particularly like your point about the character-theme connection. A theme that’s not rooted in a human being will be too abstract and impersonal to engage the reader’s interest and, more importantly, the reader’s emotional involvement. So I agree 100% – theme must be intermingled with character.

    We can even make the character-theme connection very subtle where, for example, the character herself might be totally unaware of her connection to the theme. I’m thinking of “The Remains of the Day” where the butler Stevens (Anthony Hopkins in the movie) represented (in the context of the broader theme) the obedient, servile citizen who meekly performs his function in society and believes it is not his place to question or hold accountable those in power above him. I have to admit that I missed that theme entirely the first time I viewed the movie, but when I got it on a second viewing I was deeply moved by it. Often the more subtle the theme, the greater its power and impact.

    Lastly, I have a question KM: What are your thoughts regarding unresolved themes? I’ve written a fantasy trilogy in which a Queen orders a horrifying massacre, but a direct result of that massacre is a period of twenty years of peace and prosperity for her subjects. The thematic question I’m intending to raise is a complex variation of “Does the end justify the means?” Tens of thousands of good people benefit from the Queen’s act, yet the act itself is unambiguously immoral. I have different characters express different views about the Queen’s action (some objecting, some agreeing), but I leave the matter unresolved. Honestly, I couldn’t decide myself where I stood on the matter. Do you think unresolved themes are acceptable, or is the writer obliged to tilt the scale in favor of one view over another?

    Thanks KM! As always, you’ve set my mind buzzing with ideas and strategies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “Unresolved” themes are excellent when handled rightly. This goes back to the idea of stories asking questions rather than providing answers. The bigger the moral question, the more difficult it can be to find black and white answers–and fiction that tries to often rings false.

      However, what is important is making certain the open-ended moral questions are not mirrored in an open-ended plot structure that fails to offer closure of some type on all three story levels (plot, character, theme) for at least the protagonist.

  34. I don’t have a theme for my fantasy story, but I do have a plot, and I think for my superhero stories I think to believe in yourself I guess. Though for my fantasy story, it’s about a mechanic named Sky who crashes on a planet called Tendra and meets a sorceress/priestess, a warrior princess, and a female knight. They then go on this journey to stop an evil enchantress named Circe and go into a forest where they encounter plants that grab you, demon monkeys, and other weird animals. Though they also meet three guys, a warrior prince, a sorcerer and a knight. They have to solve a riddle first in order to find this object that turns out be a piece of a falling star and turn it into a gem that is on a sword that Sky leanrs to use.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      All properly structured stories present themes. It’s just a matter of consciously identifying them and maximizing their potential within the story.

  35. Carol Painter says:

    Such a stimulating podcast and discussion. Whew. I constantly wrestle with venturing an opinion or making a lofty observation or saying something that is philosophically deep, whether in the voice of a character, or narrator. My debate with myself goes something along the lines of…gulp! can I say that? little ole me? Who am I to try to be so profound? I read voraciously and am wowed by the way the authors I admire do this. Is there some medicine I need to take?

  36. Vincent Guillemot says:

    Great post, K.M. Weiland! I’m a fan of your web site and love those podcasts about Theme and Message. There’s not a lot of articles about those specific topics, so big big big thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! This article and the ensuing conversations have actually given me a lot to think about in regard to my own themes as well.

  37. My novel tackles a different take on the dark side of the human trafficking crisis . Protagonist is a rescuer and begins on a race across Southeast Asia and Europe to rescue a shipment of victims. I’m not sure I agree that agents/publishers are looking for something this different. The key is finding that one agent willing to help tackle this issue with me… it is a fiction novel not memoir.

    Thanks and I find every one of your blogs/ posts extremely helpful … thank you

  38. I totally agree on this one. When we make it personal, we create something that matters to us and, because of that, has a better chance of resonating with others.

    A couple of quotes come to mind (the second of which, I probably got from you at some point)

    “The more specific a work gets, the more broadly it relates to other people.”
    -Desiree Burch

    “Write like it matters, and it will.”
    -Libba Bray

  39. David Hall says:

    Got some crits about my chap 1 entry at a website. I need advice from normal people.
    Or condolences.

    1. One crit pointed out a short, short paragraph : She said, “The car ran out of gas.”
    He said I should show instead of tell. In dialog?
    The critter is nuts.

    2. Another said there was no ‘excitement’ in my entry (chap 1).
    First chapter and excitement?

    3. One guy spent a paragraph at the end telling me he had two Bachelor of Arts degrees and sold books which many people read and that somebody on TV had mentioned his work. All this in a crit.

    4. Another guy wrote “what is the relevance of this to the main idea of the story?” He knows the ‘main idea’ already? In the middle of chapter 1?

    Things like this get my dander up. Should I just ignore these people or write back to them?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s my personal policy never to rebut critters unless I’m looking for clarification. Whether their comments or their manner were helpful or not, they did give me the gift of their time and attention in reading the story.

  40. My experience is that the protagonist defines the theme and until I know him or her, I may not fully understand what the story is truly about. In my WIP, Angel of Mortality, Raisa has the ability to create a nano-robotic plague that can selectively reduce the world’s population by as much as 98%. She is working undercover for the UN to expose the group tat wants this weapon. Their reasons for wanting to reduce human population have some validity in Raisa’s mind but, harking back to the dilemma that faced the scientists on the Manhattan Project, she doesn’t want anyone to use the weapon. The technology also has useful applications, so she continues working on it even though she is creeping up on the day when she must deliver it to the cabal that plans to use it. If she doesn’t deliver, they will kill her. The theme is common: “Does the greater good outweigh the lesser evil,” but Raisa’s choice between options is up to her.

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