photo of a boat on the sea approaching two glaciers to illustrate the importance of theme.

2 Questions to Help You Identify Your Story’s Theme

As a child, my favorite holiday movie was A Christmas Story. In it, Ralphie Parker wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas, but all the adults keep telling him he’ll shoot his eye out. So, he concocts scheme after scheme, hoping to get his Christmas wish.

In one scene, his teacher tells the class they’ll need to write a theme. He sees it as his big break. If he can convince his teacher that this is a sound gift, his parents will cave.

I’ve spent years wondering what the teacher meant by a theme. I assume she meant a persuasive essay, but who knows?

Theme is a topic most writers puzzle over. They know their work needs one. But what is it, and how do you insert one without making it so obvious your work feels hackneyed?

In chapter two of Wired for Story, Lisa Cron takes a deep dive into theme and shares the simplest definition I’ve ever encountered.

Theme is “what your story says about human nature.” As Lisa defines it, “Theme tends to be reflected in how your characters treat each other, so it defines what is possible and what isn’t in the world as the story unfolds.”

“Theme boils down to two things:

  • What does the story tell us about what it means to be human?
  • What does it say about how humans react to circumstances beyond their control?”

Theme is “where the universal, or a feeling, emotion, or truth that resonates with us all, lies.” It arises from some element of being human, like love, loyalty, belonging, grit, or betrayal. But for it to work, you can’t just choose something general. You must make a very specific point about the element you’re exploring.

And you must do it without spelling it out. As Lisa says, “A well-executed theme is one of the most powerful elements of your story, but it’s also one of the most invisible.” You feel it rather than see it bluntly on the page.

It’s often conveyed by your story’s tone, which includes the language and details you use to create “a mood the reader feels.” In fact, the theme will determine the tone of your book.

Lisa uses an excerpt from Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge as an example. The book’s main theme is how we bear loss. “Author Elizabeth Strout has said that she hopes her readers ‘feel a sense of awe at the quality of human endurance.’” In this example, a mundane moment triggers a universal experience that may feel familiar.

“She was glad she had never left Henry. She’d never had a friend as loyal, as kind, as her husband.

“And yet, standing behind her son, waiting for the traffic light to change, she remembered how in the midst of it all there had been times when she’d felt a loneliness so deep that once, not so many years ago, having a cavity filled, the dentist’s gentle turning of her chin with his soft fingers had felt to her like a tender kindness of almost excruciating depth, and she had swallowed with a groan of longing, tears springing to her eyes.”

This specific moment of longing and loneliness plunges us into a world we can relate to. We feel the longing and the loneliness, and because it’s connected to her gladness in not leaving, we wonder what must’ve happened for this relationship to endure.

While Lisa says it’s best—or perhaps easiest—to build a story around a theme if you know it in advance, I’d caution memoirists not to do this. Theme is something you craft for the outside reader. 

The first few drafts of a memoir are strictly for the writer. They offer you an opportunity to bear witness to your own experience and make meaning from it. 

Once you’ve achieved that, you can decide what truly belongs in your project. For most memorists, that requires multiple drafts, lots of introspection, and a great deal of culling before they’re ready for that kind of analysis.

So, here’s how to tackle theme in your memoir:

If you’re starting out: Write your drafts and build your story’s world. Focus on crafting clear scenes and stringing them together. As you do this, pay attention to how your characters treat each other and the rules of your world.

If you’re in the messy middle: Look for possible themes. If you’re not sure what they could be, use this list as a starting point. Then ask yourself how your narrator is reacting to circumstances beyond their control. What does this tell you about your theme? Once you identify a theme, consider the book’s tone. Are your theme and tone working together to build a mood? If not, what changes are in order?

If you’re almost done: Identify a clear main theme. Make sure the tone reflects the theme. Read your book, or better yet, have your book read to you. Listen for moments where you’re hammering the theme home or where it’s so visible it’s over the top. Massage those out of your manuscript.

But more than anything, be willing to experiment, play, and take an easy approach to this work. That’s because sometimes the theme finds the writer and not the other way around.

Until next week, may the themes you encounter open your world to new possibilities and new ways to write on.

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