Identifying Your Story Theme

Hey! Pull up a chair and let’s talk story themes.

Are you cringing? I think most writers do when we hear that word. Telling someone your theme is akin to revealing your moral code. For me, it's hard not to feel lofty when saying something like, "My story dispels the myth of the existence of free will."

In my head, themes come out sounding like voiceover by Morgan Freeman. Weird, I know. Point is: talking theme makes me feel preachy and not a little bit lost. It makes me wonder about my writing, and myself:

What is my point? What do I believe? Is it important enough? Is that really what my story is about?

Enter James Scott Bell to save the day. Bell is a fiction author, and an author of some excellent books on writing craft. Last year, the Muses and I attended a conference, and he gave us the following exercise to help us identify our story themes. Try it, if you're struggling with the your story theme.

Imagine you're in a bar twenty years after the events in the story. Your protagonist walks in, sits down beside you. After you get over the shock of seeing a figment of your imagination drinking a beer on the next barstool over, you ask the following questions about their journey in the story:

                Why did you have to go through that?
                What did that do to you?
                What did you learn?

Go ahead a free-write for about ten minutes on that, and BOOM. It works. It worked for me. Try it. Set your inner Morgan Freeman free!

Modified from an earlier post on the YA Muses.


Theme scares me to death! John Green talks about how he never writes with theme in mind but adds "ideas" that sort of tie the story together in later drafts--like, for instance, some infinities being bigger than others. (I know, sounds suspiciously like theme to me, too). But for whatever reason, this still seems less scary to me and I'm working on it as a stop on the road toward thinking about theme.

I will definitely try this one out. Personally, I'm all about theme but I need to delve deeper into my main character. I think this exercise might help.

My mentor in this years Nevada SCBWI Program kept asking me this very question, and yes, it made me want to propel under a bed when I couldn't think of the answer--it's a hard one! And I love this bar scene analogy, I will definitely use it, like now.

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