3 Steps That Will Help You Find Your Story's Theme

When we teach writers how to write a novel or a memoir, we emphasise how crucial theme is in the process. The best novels and the most life-changing memoirs you will ever read are the ones that help you discover a truth about the human condition.

A theme in a book should never be stated but should be developed through character changes and plot escalation. 

In The Art of Dramatic Writing Lajos Egri says well-defined characters drive plots. He emphasises the consistency of change in life. Characters have to adapt, evolve and ‘synthesise’ new philosophies. They do this after facing many overwhelming obstacles. 

What is a theme?

  1. Theme is the central idea of the story. 
  2. It is better if it is a full statement, with a subject and a verb. 
  3. It sums up what the story shows us about the human condition. It is not a moral. It is simply a statement.

Examples:

  1. Crime pays.
  2. Honesty is the best policy.
  3. Who dares wins.
  4. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.
  5. Home is where the heart is.
  6. The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.
  7. You never really know anybody.
  8. People are predictable.
  9. People with nothing to lose are dangerous.
  10. Love conquers all.
  11. What does not kill you makes you stranger.
  12. Blood is thicker than water.
  13. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family.

Three steps to finding a theme

If you understand your plot, the parts your characters play in the story, and the effects this plot will have on your characters’ lives, you will find the meaning of your story. Once you understand the meaning, you will find the theme.

  1. What is the story about? This is the plot of the story. Example: My story is about a man who hunts down the men who were acquitted after they killed his family.
  2. What is the meaning behind the story? This is usually an abstract result of his actions. Example: My story says that when the system fails a person who has lost everything, he will find out how far he is prepared to go.
  3. What is the lesson? This is a statement about the human condition. Example: People with nothing to lose are dangerous.

Lajos Egri gives this simple formula to develop a theme. 

The Lajos Egri Theme Cheat Sheet:

____________________ leads to _______________________

Example: Your wife committing adultery leads to you finding out you never really know anyone.
Example: Embezzling money from your company and getting caught leads to you understanding honesty is the best policy.
Example: A woman who meddles in other people’s marriages leads to her realising that fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

Once you have a theme for your book, use it to check if a scene fits in your novel. Ask yourself: Does every scene build your story's theme?

Sources: The Basics of FictionWriters Write and Lajos Egri

Amanda Patterson by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Pinterest,  Facebook,  Google+,  Tumblr  and Twitter. 

© Amanda Patterson

If you enjoyed this, read these posts:

  1. Five Really Good Reasons To Outline Your Novel 
  2. Why Revenge is Such a Brilliant Plot for Beginner Writers
  3. Basic Plot Structure - The Five Plotting Moments That Matter 

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Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate
18 responses
I love this post. We must not forget the miracle of story-telling, and why it is a miracle in the first place: it communicates ideas and life lessons taught through the dramas of the author's imagination. It lets the reader play along with the pain of the plot and the climax, giving her a chance to gain insight without actually experiencing the losses herself. There is something I found quite startling, though. Have any of you read Stephen King's Memoir on the Craft? Methinks you shall remember this, if you have. There is a chapter in which he emphasizes writing the story BEFORE thinking of the theme, or the central idea. He recommends to instead write the story, describe the trees; and when it is all finished, to step back and look at the forest for its entirety. That is where you will find the theme. Then, during the editing process. You go back and emphasize the idea subtly, but purposefully. I think this method is genius. Not only do you destroy the possibility of making the theme too obvious (and thus hackneyed), you allow it to manifest itself subconsciously through the characters rather than consciously. Therefore it is not forced. Any opinions regarding this method, possible improvements?
Excellent post. Thank you.
That's a great method, Josh. Theme, to me, must be very subtle, layered and complex. And I only found the theme for my current story on draft 3.
Thanks for this post. My theme did emerge during all the drafts of my novel and even now is still distilling.
Lady. you are supreme.
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