Powerful Themes in Captain American Winter Soldier

Is This the Single Best Way to Write Powerful Themes?

The Single Best Way to Write Powerful ThemesPart 9 of The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel

The longer I study stories, the more convinced I am that the one single thing that sets apart the great stories from the meh ones is theme. What this means, of course, is that figuring out how to write powerful themes is possibly the most important job of any writer.

Theme is what a story is about. More than that, however, theme is why a story matters. Without a powerful theme that works in cohesion with the plot and the character development to resonate with readers in a relatable way, you will never create a story that lives beyond its two covers (if it actually gets far enough to have a cover, of course).

When, however, you find that sweet spot where theme grows so beautifully and organically at the crossroads of character and plot—the result is a story that instantly multiplies in depth, meaning, power, and cohesion. The biggest of stories without theme will always be a flop. But if you learn how to purposefully write powerful themes, you can take even the smallest, silliest, most escapist of all stories (like, say, a superhero comic book) and turn it into something great.

Why Do I Love Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Let Me Count the Ways

And that, of course, brings me to my favorite of all the Marvel movies to date—Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If Avengers was where the series kicked into high gear, Winter Soldier was where everything finally paid off in a film that is legitimately excellent in nearly every way you could ask for from a story in this genre.

Winter Soldier‘s prowess is due to several factors, including:

  • Rock-solid plotting and directing from the Russo brothers, including a taut suspense plot.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • Spot-on placement of humor.
Captain America Winter Soldier On Your Left

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • A well-developed antagonist, who didn’t even need a super-identity to be formidable.
"Marvel's Captain America: The Winter Soldier"L to R: Alexande

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

Cap Bucky Museum

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • Some of my favorite action setpieces in the series.
Winter Soldier Knife Scene

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

  • And then there’s the characters. And the theme. I have to mention them in the same breath, because you can hardly tell where one starts and the other ends. And that is why Winter Soldier is such a powerful demonstration of theme.
You're My Friend Captain America Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

How to Write Powerful Themes in Just 3 Steps

Writing Your Story’s Theme (Amazon affiliate link)

Writers are sometimes confused by the concept of theme. It just seems so…. conceptual. So airy-fairy. How can you ever truly get your brain around it?

The matter gets even more complicated when you start hearing advice that goes something along the lines of, “Don’t you dare think about your theme! God forbid you actually write a theme on purpose. If you do anything more than look at your theme crossways out of the corner of your eye, you’ll end up shoving a heavy-handed moral message down your readers’ throats.”

To which I say: Horseradish.

Like any part of the story, theme is just a piece of the puzzle. It is a problem that can and should be solved.

How do you do that?

Easy. By breaking theme down into its three prominent aspects, studying how they work in successful stories like Winter Soldier, and then examining how to apply them to your own stories.

Theme Aspect #1: Thematic Principle

Often, when writers start thinking about theme what comes to mind is a story’s overall thematic principle. Often, this is a general truth, virtue, or evil that can be summed up in one word, such as fearlovejustice, or faith.

If you look at each of the three primary stories within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, up to this point, I think you can make a good case for delineating their general themes as follows:

  • The Iron Man movies are about: Self.
  • The Thor movies are about: Family.
  • The Captain America movies are about: Friendship and Loyalty.
How to Write Powerful Themes - According to Marvel

Iron Man (2008), Marvel Studios; Thor (2011), Paramount Pictures; Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), Marvel Studios.

This is most obvious in the Captain America movies because, out of the three trilogies, it’s the one that pulls its theme off most faithfully, most blatantly, and most cohesively.

How Winter Soldier Gets Its Thematic Principle Right

The secret to Winter Soldier‘s resonant theme is twofold:

1. It builds its theme out of its characters.

That’s the whole secret of theme right there. You can’t just choose an arbitrary message and slap it onto your story. Rather, you must look at your characters, their desires and beliefs, and the journeys they’re on—and suss out what theme is found therein.

The Captain America movies are consistently some of the strongest entries in the series simply because they understand their protagonist Steve Rogers so well and never flinch from portraying him as exactly what he is—in all his stodgy, old-fashioned, stubborn, principled, loyal dimensions. The theme emanates directly from the heart of the main character, and the result is a theme that feels incredibly coherent and pertinent within the story’s action elements.

Anybody Want to Get Off Captain America Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

2. It creates a story driven by those characters.

Once you understand exactly who your characters are and what kind of journey they’re on, you can then consciously and purposefully strengthen that by going back and examining your plot. Are you creating a story that is driven by your characters’ desires and beliefs? When the answer is yes, you will always end up with cohesive trifecta of plot-character-theme.

At every turn, Winter Soldier‘s manhunt suspense plot challenges and reinforces Steve’s beliefs about friendship, loyalty, and duty. His relationships with Nick Fury, Natasha Romanov, Sam Wilson, and eventually his long-lost World War II-era best friend Bucky Barnes fuel every step of this story—both the outer journey and the inner. Everything that happens in the plot influences the development of the characters and the presentation of the theme—just as the characters and theme fuel the plot events right back.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

Theme Aspect #2: The Protagonist’s Inner Conflict

Your protagonist’s inner conflict is where you start digging deeper into theme, beyond just the general understanding of its thematic principle. Inner conflict is where you begin your story’s moral argument.

Your story’s general thematic principle will always raise a question (e.g., How far must you go for the sake of loyalty and friendship? or What happens when loyalty and duty collide?). The inner conflict at the center of your protagonist’s character arc is where you then start searching for answers to that question.

Remember, character arc is always fueled by the battle between two opposing moral principles—the Truth and the Lie. Theme is right at the heart of that battle. You must create a deep-seated personal quandary for your character, one that is driven by and in turn influences the story’s outer plot. No matter what you may start out thinking your story’s theme is about, what it’s really about will always be found within your protagonist’s inner conflict.

How Winter Soldier Gets Its Inner Conflict Right

Steve is a Flat Arc character. This means he already knows his story’s Truths—about the value of friendship and loyalty, about the necessity of making hard choices in the name of principles and duty. He is challenged in his beliefs, but he also holds fast (unlike a Positive Change Arc character, who will start out believing a Lie and grow into the Truth).

Most importantly, of all, however, he uses his Truth to inspire change in the characters around him—in Fury, in Natasha, in Bucky. Theme is always about change. It does not live in stasis, even in a Flat Arc story. The presentation of a thematic premise isn’t just some nice feeling that floats around in airy-fairy land. The theme is always an active force, that must either be working upon the protagonist or worked by him. This is where we see theme fully integrating with plot.

Captain America Winter Soldier Nick Fury Compartmentalization

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

Theme Aspect #3: Proving Theme via Action

Now that you understand the mechanics of theme—its overall message throughout the story and its inner workings within your characters—it’s time to put the theme to work within the plot itself. It’s time for your theme to do something.

As I said above, it’s not enough for your theme to live in stasis. But it’s also not enough for your theme to simply live inside your character. It has to get out and dance. It has to do something. It has to prove itself via action.

If you think of your plot as an external, visual metaphor for your protagonist’s inner journey, then you can see why it needs to closely mirror and support that journey. Why does your character have to endure this particular plot in order to learn this particular theme? If there is no obvious connection, then either the plot or the theme is the wrong choice.

How Winter Soldier Gets Its Action Right

This is where many an action movie goes terribly wrong. It creates an action-packed external plot and maybe (if we’re lucky) tucks a nice little inner transformation into the protagonist’s back pocket. But the two are only tangentially related at best.

Winter Soldier is a story that proves its thematic premise at every juncture in the plot. Every scene in this movie feeds into Steve’s personal quandaries and beliefs about relationships and duty. Every single interaction with Natasha and Fury demonstrates this—and that’s before the film knocks it out of the park by revealing that Steve’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes has been brainwashed into the fearsome Winter Soldier.

Literally everything Steve has been struggling with or defending throughout the story comes to a head when he is faced with the plot’s climactic decision: Do what’s right at the risk of killing Bucky—or not?

Bucky Steve Fight on Catwalk Captain America Winter Soldier Climax

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Marvel Studios.

The reason this is a great movie in its own right—even apart from the overall series—is because it is a story about theme. It is a story that finds its theme deep within its characters and uses that theme to create its plot. All three thematic elements are integral to each other in a way that presents a powerful and compelling visual metaphor for a deeply personal and relatable moral quandary.

Doesn’t matter what kind of story you’re writing—whether you intend it to be literary or deep, or whether it’s just a fun romantic or action-packed romp. Every story should strive to perfectly balance its three most important elements—plot, character, and theme. Any story that does so, instantly has the potential to matter.

Stay Tuned: In three weeks, we’ll talk about how Guardians of the Galaxy cleverly used backstory as its key to creating relatable and likable characters.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! How are you integrating plot and character to write powerful themes? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. J. A. Hagen says

    Thank you for this in-depth revision. I will check my draft according to it – and watch “Winter Soldier” again from the viewpoint of the article – in spite of its flaws.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Beefing up theme is never a bad move. Who knows what interesting new aspects of your story you’ll discover!

      • How do we apply theme to our story? I read these articles of yours below: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/storys-theme/
        Including the Difference between story Message and theme but I don’t understand how to make it applicable. All I know is that theme can be used to cut out unnecessary parts.

        For example, the theme of the story I want to write is Legacy, but I don’t know how to apply it.

      • Michael Hesterberg says

        Dear K.M.,
        I’m suffering mental overload from your in-depth, extremely intellectual assessments of stories.

        After reading your explanations of themes, arcs, character development, and other elements, I go back and mentally examine my manuscript for any evidence of these things, but I can’t seem to identify them.

        My own method of writing didn’t involve conscious thought of these things before or even as I wrote–now resulting in much self-doubt.
        I would just get ideas and begin putting them to paper, and I treated my plot as real life would be–I just kept writing and let my ideas carry my story.

        I now know that this method is not good! Structuring an outline before creating the story is the better method! But now, I must reckon with my existing manuscript. It is all but finished, and represents five years of part time writing, rewriting, and editing.

        Can you advise me concerning how to do this?

        • Michael Saltar says

          I’m interested in the response to this as well. I know what it’s like to wise up after years of work on a project, but still have a ton of legacy writing to sort through.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It sounds like maybe the first thing to do at this point would be to take a step back from the manuscript. Give yourself a little time and distance (say, a month), so you can come back to it with more objective eyes.

          After that, what I would do is “outline” a revision, approaching it in the same way you would if you were outlining the story from scratch, but going through it step by step and evaluating what needs to change. To that end, you might find this series helpful. It’s about outlining, but could be used for revisions in the manner I’m talking about here.

  2. Michael Saltar says

    Thanks for addressing this subject.

    I’ve often heard it said that the A story (outward) is related to what the protagonist wants and the B story (inward) relates to what he needs — the latter being the lesson he must learn, aka theme. I’ve also heard B story kicks into gear near the start of Act II and introduces new characters. (OK, now you know I’ve read Blake Snyder, but he’s not the only one.) Regardless, it’s still all fuzzy in my head.

    Do you agree and would you mind expounding your discourse some to the B-story connection?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      A Story is the outer conflict, the plot. B Story is the inner conflict, the character arc. Both are functioning throughout the story, at all the important beats and influencing one another. But it’s true that the inner conflict (B Story) gets more and more intense – and is given more and more frontal focus – as the story progresses. This is usually the result of an increasing *awareness* for the protagonist of the inner conflict and its pertinence.

      • Michael Saltar says

        So I guess you could say both the A and B stories explore the theme, but the B story does more so because it’s internal, correct?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I hate to divide it up like that honestly. In the best stories, with the most integral themes, the A (external) story is a direct visual metaphor for the thematic questions at the heart of the B (inner) story. They’re very intrinsic to one another. They’re *both* about theme, although, true, the A story isn’t as explicitly about the theme on its surface.

  3. Horseradish?

    Such strong language!

    Another excellent post. How do you find time to work on your novel if you are generating such excellent content?

  4. Every week that I read these, I get a clearer picture of where my WIP needs to go! Thanks!

  5. Jeffrey Barlow says

    I always enjoy reading posts about theme. Don’t know why. Needless to say, this was great and very encouraging – in confident my WIP’s theme (control) will be one of its strongest elements. And the plot and characters are looking to be just the right vessels for this theme to truly shine through.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I know why! 🙂 Because theme is the heart and soul of fiction. It what makes it truly interesting. What makes it matter on a deeper level.

  6. airy-fairy lol… worth the price of admission right there! 😉

    Since the webinar have had the image of weaving stuck in my head, you’ve said previously how so many elements are interconnected, interwoven, this article went a long way in helping me see how bringing the thread of theme into play adds much to the whole.

    • Well, apparently I matted, mauled, clogged and otherwise made the loom inoperable. Thought I had a grasp on theme only to realize (after reading other comments/links) that I don’t.

      Maybe I’ll try knitting… after all, whoever heard of weaving a potholder?

  7. Posing the general theme idea as a question actually is a really simple way to understand it. Most people talk theme and never go into how to find it in your manuscript. So then I’m left wondering how to find it or how to even understand it. People can say “it’s about what your story is really about under the surface” but that doesn’t give me anything to go off of as to what to look for. A question allows for answers or at least specifics.

    This blog actually helped me understand inner conflict.

    So basically as far as inner conflict goes, the inner conflict/theme question is answered by your scenes and the external conflict?

    My theme question is “What price would you pay to protect your family?”

    And each scene has to deal with or answer this question through the characters choices and consequences within the external conflict? Is this how the external conflict and inner conflict are braided together into your novel? Answering the big theme question.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly. The theme asks a general question. The plot then provides as specific message in answer to that question. More on that here: What’s the Difference Between Your Story’s Theme and Its Message?.

      • I have the link a careful read (reread?) Considering my own WIP (again!) I now see the team as personal gratification. What are the things we do for enjoyment and entertainment? Sx, romance, sports, mass media. I talk about setting priorities.

        In the end, my message is that falling in love with someone is not about how good that other person makes you feel, but instead being willing to put the other person’s happiness and needs ahead of your own. Giving instead of receiving.

    • I know some have their problems with it, but I’m a big fan of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness because it’s characters, plot and theme all do a phenomenal job with that very question of “How far are you willing to go to protect your family?” It starts right from the opening scene and resonates throughout.

      If you haven’t seen it, you may want to check it out. It might be able to help you as you construct your work in progress. 🙂

  8. Sofia Becker says

    Thank you so much for this post! In my current stories…
    1. Crossroads of a Lifetime: the theme of this story is dealing with the stress, anxiety, and anger of people leaving your life without warning; learning to not ignore the gut feeling that you have to do something important even if you don’t want to/learning to not be afraid to die/changing your perspective on certain aspects of life; learning to reconcile with your family and friends despite what is in the past.
    How that ties into the plot of the story is that the three characters connect with each other and through different circumstances, they learn all these things.
    2. Robin Hood: Exiles Return: I think the main theme is overcoming your fear of the choices that you maike (or something like that). Robin Hood has been in a self-imposed exile for 3.5 years and through circumstances in the story, he learns that he doesn’t have to be afraid of his choices.
    That goes alone with the sequel, Silver Linings in the Grey Mist. Thomas, the main character, has to make a decision of whether he will cast his lot with the barons to sign the Magna Carta or if he will go against it all and become part of Robin Hood’s men.
    So basically, I try to make my characters normal human beings with problems. I don’t know if this helps.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds great! These are all fabulous, very specific and interesting themes to explore. I can tell they’re arising straight out of your plot situations. Good job!

  9. Elizabeth Gillilan says

    Thank you again for this amazing series!! It’s the highlight of my Friday to get off work and curl up to read the latest gem in writing.

    I have a question. I’m researching a lot into theme for my newest WIP. I have plot and characters but picking a theme is proving elusive. I’m planning for a series, featuring a different pov character for each book under the arc of a complex plot.

    I’ve read all your posts on character arcs and series that I can find, but I can’t figure out how to handle theme over a series like this. If theme is one of the three building blocks of story in balance with character and plot, what do I do when characters switch but the plot doesn’t?

    I’ve outlined five books, and my pov characters are strongly interwoven, however, they are all extremely different. If each pov character and subsequent book has a unique inner journey and a plot inside the overarching plot of the series, that would mean a new theme each time, right? Can I have a theme for my series plot and sub or derivative themes for the individual books? What would that look like?

    I want my book tightly tired together and theme seems the strongest way to accomplish that, but I’m stumped on the how. Do you have any advice on how to use themes in this way, or anyplace you would recommend where I can research this further? Thank you 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree that theme is the single best way to tie together books in a series into a powerful and cohesive whole. You *can* certainly explore different themes for each character in each new book. However, what I would recommend is, first, identifying the main theme at the heart of your story’s overarching conflict. Then look for different *aspects* of that theme you can explore in each character’s inner journey.

      For example, in my WIP Dreambreaker, I’m looking at an overarching series theme of Faith. But, via that, I’m able to explore all kinds of sub-themes, including Hope, Doubt, Steadfastness, Loyalty, Love, and Disbelief.

      When you can pull this off, the result is a very complex, rich exploration of theme that still maintains cohesion, since it all ties back into one master idea.

      • Elizabeth Gillilan says

        Thank you!

        Sorry to bother you a second time, but do you have any advice on how to decide on a the overarching theme?

        I have some loose and varied themes I’m interested in exploring (several are already closely related, others not as much), and the seeds for many are already present in my story. For my series theme, do I look at my existing pieces and extrapolate something like a Common Multiple in math, or should I just choose the most narratively promising of my seed and spread it and its sub-themes throughout the series while I cull out and save my other theme seeds for later?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Look at the moral questions that are at the heart of your main overarching conflict. Since that’s the conflict that will drive the story throughout the entire series, that’s the theme that’s going to hold it all together. There should be a primary moral question, even if there are multiple sub-questions. What one question defines the final confrontation between protagonist and antagonistic force?

  10. “Rather, you must look at your characters, their desires and beliefs, and the journeys they’re on—and suss out what theme is found therein.” I think this is one of my favorite lines from this article.
    In my current work, this truth is probably magnified the most. My main character comes from a place of manipulation – manipulating people for personal gain. From that point of view and the problems he faces because of those choices and actions, he’s goes up against another person – a person he’s forced to work with to achieve his goal – with another strong point of view that questions whether or not he should continue manipulating or stop in favor of a better alternative. I think because those two points of view clash and are explored from varying angles, they’re able to breath and offer that middle ground, that subtext that (hopefully) the reader fills in the blanks and learns which method is more effective to solving the story’s problem.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The clash of POVs is such a great way to explore theme, because it lets you do it naturally (i.e., without preaching at readers) and via the drama of organic conflict.

  11. Theme has been the “bete noire” for me through both the 2 finished and 1 WIP novels I’ve hand-hammered, hacked and sawn my way through. Thank you for putting it into a much better perspective for me! A nail gun and chainsaw make the work go faster to be sure.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Theme is either a writer’s nightmare or a writer’s a joy–and the difference largely comes down to how you approach it. If the theme arises naturally out the characters and plot, the whole thing just flows. Otherwise, it really does end up feeling like you need a hacksaw!

  12. Kate Flournoy says

    As always, awesome post, Katie. It’s amazing what you can learn just from observing, isn’t it?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Half the joy of being a writer, for me, is digging deep into other people’s stories. I grab them and throw them around my shoulders like a cloak and just huddle in their warmth for as long as possible. Then, ideally, I come out with lots of good realizations. 😀

  13. Wow, great article! I’ve been kind of stuck with my WIP lately, but this has given me some good things to think about… As well as the inspiration to get back to it 🙂 Thanks!

  14. Excellent points on Winter Soldier. I agree completely that it’s the best Marvel film (I don’t really think any of the others come close to approaching it), and you’re right about the humor and well developed antagonist. No other Marvel villain has come close to providing a perfect foil for me Alexander Pierce, and that’s because he perfectly stems out of the theme.

    Speaking of, I see where you’re coming from with friendship as the theme. But I think I gravitate to this one because I’ve always seen its theme as trust, which is a subject I find endlessly fascinating. Fury spells it out in his elevator speech about grandad liking people but not trusting them very much, and I love how it comes down to Steve putting his faith in Bucky to remember him at the climactic showdown, which was preceded by his speech about the price of freedom being high, and trusting the SHIELD agents to do the right thing.

    But friendship and loyalty are related ideas, so we’re definitely on the same wave length. 🙂

    Great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good point. I think Friendship is the overarching theme of all three Captain America movies, but I agree that Trust–as an inherent facet of Friendship–is this movie’s particular theme.

      • Well said. It’s a theme that definitely gets stronger with each film thanks to the increasing reliance on his relationship with Bucky, and they even hit it harder by using it to test his friendship with Tony.

        Curious what you thought of the opening scene of Civil War. Maybe I’m in the minority, but I thought it obviously telegraphed the film’s big reveal, which in turn robbed that impact moment of Much of its emotional weight for me. (Tony’s talk with his father’s image cinched it in my mind).

        Do you think they put that opening scene up front because they felt it would come too far out of left field without it? For me it was a big misstep, and I think the story would have played just fine, and much better, without it.

        Still a very good film though.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Personally, I didn’t make the connection between the opening scene and Howard Stark, so it didn’t mess me up at all (but that could be just me). However, since the reveal in the end is a little bit out of left field as it is, I definitely feel like they needed that heavy foreshadowing in the beginning.

          • There were a lot of puzzle pieces my mind put together without realizing it, including the early 80s date and the Winter Soldier reveal from Zola that Hydra was responsible for the death of the Starks.

            From what I gather, most people didn’t see it coming. I haven’t had the chance to see it a second time, so I’m wondering how the scene will play for me on repeat viewing in the full context of a known story.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            I think you were just way less oblivious than me. :p I hadn’t seen Iron Man in years, so I’d totally forgotten about Tony’s parents dying in a car crash. And I didn’t remember the hint from Zola until I rewatched Winter Soldier after seeing Civil War (in fact, I was having a hard time figuring our how Steve even knew Bucky was responsible until that point). Still, I can’t think of another way the filmmakers could have set up the foreshadowing for the reveal. It’s perhaps not ideal, but sometimes not all choices can be, due the particular constraints of the story.

  15. “… many an action movie goes terribly wrong. It creates an action-packed external plot and maybe (if we’re lucky) tucks a nice little inner transformation into the protagonist’s back pocket. But the two are only tangentially related at best.”

    That reminded me of the new Star Trek movie. I went to see it with a friend who is not a big fan of Star Trek and she loved the movie. I’ve been a Treky since I was a kid but I left less impressed. It has some good stuff in it but something seemed off about and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I think what you said above hit the mark. I could be wrong, of course. I don’t have the hang of theme and story structure yet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Same here. Beyond tried really hard (and, indeed, accomplished its mission) to tie its plot and theme together. But because the theme never gets any real airtime or discussion, particularly within sequel scenes, it feels like a very thin layer of icing on top of all the action.

      • and too many logical questions to allow you to fully suspend disbelief.


        Why didn’t the Enterprise approach the situation with it’s shields up?

        If Krall could reach the starbase, why didn’t he leave before?

        If they were hiding in Krall’s old ship, why didn’t he know the location?

        If the swarm were designed to ram and puncture starships, why do they explode when they run into each other?

        Writers need to work out these kinds of questions.

  16. I was recently taught that movies (and books) often fail because they aren’t true to their theme. If you have an inherent theme but fail to bring it forward, as if you only looked at it from the corner of your eye while writing (good analogy!), the viewers and readers tend to instinctively not like it. They may not be able to pinpoint it. I wish I had some questions to help see if beta readers got the plot without saying ‘theme.’

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ask them if they felt like your protagonist’s inner conflict supported his outer conflict–and vice versa. Ask them if the story’s moral quandary was well thought out and complex, without undue favoritism to one side of the issue or the other. Ask them if they felt the protagonist was faced with hard choices that had no completely obvious solutions. Ask them if they ever felt preached at.

  17. I just don’t understand the anti-theme crowd. Anyway, another great article.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Same here. All stories present theme, even if it’s unintentional and even if it’s poorly done. Why not do it right and make your story 10x better?

  18. This week I read the latest installment of my other favorite online serial, which is now up to it’s sixth book IIRC, so the characters are well developed.

    Having been well instructed by Ms. Weiland, I was able to identify how the current book’s theme is about rejection.

    The MC didn’t confide in his grilfriend and got in trouble. She says, “I threatened to leave before, but do it again and I will.”

    Meanwhile he’s headed out of town for a trade show with a female coworker who has a crush on him.

    His sister is depressed because she can’t avoid her ex, who she thinks is taunting her with his new girlfriend.

    His cousin has a new boyfriend and he’s worried the guy will be like all the ones before who treated her badly.

    But he was always his cousin’s best friend, and is now jealous that she doesn’t confide in him or need him as much.

    Then his male best friend since kindergarten is worried that once they finish high school in a year that they’ll never see each other.

    And the girl who craves being the center of attention has the teacher who indulges her leave school and is being solidly rejected by the MC and his circle of friends.

    Everyone is dealing with past or potential rejection of a variety of types – romantic, friendly and socially. (Conflict, conflict, everywhere – and not a punch is thrown!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always interesting to me (as both a writer and a reader) how theme often inveigles its way into every aspect of the story, often without the author even being absolutely conscious of it. Story magic!

  19. Michael Saltar says

    Told ya, K.M.

  20. This is such an important topic to me, because I feel that if a story doesn’t explore a theme, then what really is its purpose? Theme is what gives a story beauty. Theme is the whole reason I want to write in the first place!

    I agree with your advice that theme can and SHOULD be approached in a conscious and systematic way. At the same time, I think sometimes it’s good to stop and reflect on what themes are really weighing on the writer’s heart. Or, sometimes, to let the theme emerge organically simply by making aesthetic decisions about the story — because the moral and the aesthetic are intertwined. But this is not a contradictory viewpoint, just another thought.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      For myself, I’ve found that a kind of back-and-forth approach, between subconscious creativity and conscious logical control, is helpful at all levels of the process. My stories start out very organic, very un-conscious. So when I start consciously and logically looking for theme, I always start with that original organic sense. What was there from the start? What is my “heart” (or whatever you want to call it) telling me this story is about? I’m not so much logically coming up with a good theme, as I am logically trying to identify the theme that is already present in the organic story.

      • Yes! This makes perfect sense to me.

        One point where I almost sympathize with people who advocate NOT consciously looking at theme: I do think the best stories have more in them than the author consciously put there. But that in no way precludes consciously shaping themes, drawing connections, or repeating patterns.

        And, being conscious of the themes doesn’t mean an author can’t also be subtle. I guess that’s probably another fear of the “don’t look at the theme” crowd.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Totally agree. As you can see, I approach themes very consciously by the time all is said and done–and yet my stories always end up surprising me. They always end being about more or deeper themes than I consciously understood while writing them. That’s always exciting!

          • I can see that! The way the symbolism all tied together in Storming seemed to me almost more than could have been done consciously. Whether it was conscious or organic, it certainly fit together beautifully.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            No, I didn’t plan it all! I approached that story with idea of a theme about how fleeing responsibility doesn’t make us free. But then the story ended up having a theme about family, which welled out of my original conception and became something much bigger and more encompassing.

          • I’d written K.M. to say that “Storming” reminded me of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

            Both Hitch and George Bailey were itching to leave their small towns behind and have great adventure exploring the world.

            George never got away because people were always depending on him. Hitch did leave, then came home knowing he’d have to face the vengeful sheriff and the family members he abandoned, not even counting the mysterious bad guy chasing after a beautiful woman.

          • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

            Aw, I love It’s a Wonderful Life. 🙂

  21. You know you could totally make this into a nice bite-sized book. *hint hint*

    I love this topic because it helps on so many levels! I’m going to put this one into the post hall of fame. Be back later for seconds.

  22. Good article. I feel like if you craft your characters correctly – give them a purpose, along with motivation and good strengths and weaknesses – the theme sort of works itself in there subconsciously. To use the example of the Winter Soldier’s theme, loyalty and friendship and duty, the theme presents itself simply by throwing a kink into Captain America’s world. We know he is all about duty and such (it is his purpose and his motivation), so all the writers did was place an obstacle in his way that would challenge his beliefs and put him at odds with himself. Which way does he go? Duty? Or loyalty to his friend? The theme writes itself. I don’t think the writers of Marvel put that much thought into it.

  23. I missed you the last two Fridays! Welcome back. I love talking about Marvel movies and this movie is the one that cemented Cap as my favorite Avenger. How could he not be? Although I really love Thor for the exact reason you pointed out (I am a total sucker for beefcakes who die for their ladies apparently).

    Also, this post helped me realize that my YA fantasy WIP about a girl with no magic who wants to study alchemy at the Academy for magicians is actually about my parents not encouraging me to pursue writing. Heh. (Obviously I am overcoming that.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s always amazing to me how our real life issues subconsciously worm their way into our fiction, usually without our even realizing it. Sometimes I’ll look back at old stories and realize, “Ah, that’s what that was about!”

  24. Lightbulbs are exploding in my head reading your blog today. Another insightful post. Thank you!

  25. I just came across this article, and am so pleased someone understands my love of Winter Soldier. From a storyline and thematic POV, it is far stronger (in my opinion) than nearly all the other stand-alone movies. What I have found, however, is that my penchant as a writer for those elements plus deep character building is often at odds with the Marvel universe. 😀 Nearly all my friends prefer the more comic feel of, say, Thor Ragnarok.

    But as a writer, I find myself never able to choose humor and action over characterization and growth. It’s why I was THAT member of my Dungeons and Dragons group who wanted to know ALL THE BACKSTORY and characterization. 😀

    Thank you for this article! I love all of these.

  26. Fellow Captain America fanatic here. 🙂 Thanks for this insightful post. The part about story themes was especially helpful – probably one of the most misused elements of storytelling.

  27. Thank you for all your amazing posts! I had a few questions: Should you create characters first, and *then* find the theme from them? (Just the protagonist, or all your characters?) Is it even possible to flesh out a character and give him a Ghost or an arc without knowing the theme in advance?


  1. […] Another important story element is theme, and blogger K. M. Weiland expounds on the best way to write powerful themes. […]

  2. […] Is This the Single Best Way to Write Powerful Themes? […]

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