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Beginning with Theme


toujours gai, archie
In separate post I talked about how I am planning for my next novel, A Child of Great Promise. Here I talk about planning theme.

This derives pretty directly from the character, at least for this novel. I know there are books that deal with more general themes, such as salvation or War and Peace, or whatever. None of that feels right here.

My character, Falaise, is going to grow up. I don't want this to be a coming of age story, though I won't object if that's the label someone wants to use. What I really want is for Falaise to turn herself inside out. On the outside she is independent, even hostile. On the inside she is insecure and fearful. I want her to learn to lean on others, to trust them, and to learn where to place that trust. You only learn that through hard lessons, so that works in story terms.

This means she is going to start out alone, or at least believing she is alone, but will end up with friends. I like that. I'm not always for a happy ending, but I'm always for a satisfying one.

So, I guess my theme is about dependence and independence. About freedom and the different forms that can take. But it can also be about confidence, about friendship, and about sacrifice. And that's too dang many words for a theme. I'm still working on this one.

I'm really unsure about the degree to which this needs to be planned. Right now I'm satisfied that I've thought about it, and that I have a document called "Theme" in my Scrivener project, and that I have lots of scribbled, and contradictory, notes on it. I'm willing to regard my as a hypothesis subject to revision based on new evidence.

How about you planners? Do you address theme prior to writing? If so, how?


Article Team
Good question. I like to have an idea of my theme because it then feeds into choices I make as far as character arc and symbols/metaphors, but I don't get too specific until I've finished a few drafts.

For example, my current WIP is a treasure heist/time travel story about a young girl named Andromeda Rackham.

The treasure in question is the infamous missing "Noche Triste Treasure" that Cortes tried to steal from Montezuma but returned to Spain with nothing. No one knows what happened to the Aztec gold.

I had heard an ancient myth that the Montezuma had "Dreamers" who could navigate the dreamplane and so foretell the coming of events. They saw the coming of Cortes and told Montezuma he was coming. Montezuma was afraid the Dreamers were trying to scare him into giving up his power to them so he had them all assassinated.

In my story the Dreamers hid the treasure away in the Dreamplane to protect it from Cortes.

So, my story has a pretty heavy theme of "Dreams" and the concept of dreams as a sort of treasure that need to be protected, but can be easily 'stolen' by negativity, reality, life situations, choices, etc.

Throughout my book there are cases of many characters either protecting their dreams violently, to giving them up easily, to having them destroyed by others.

I also have a fairly heavy nautical element, as many of my characters are time travelling pirates who are searching for this treasure, so they use the stars for navigation... which is why my MC is named "Andromeda."

A catchphrase I came up with early in planning went along the lines of:

"Dreams are a lot like stars, they may seem distant and impossible to reach, but without them we would be lost."

So, I know that that is my theme, and the choice I make then as far as symbols, metaphors, characterization, etc then all feeds into that.

However, I don't focus too much on it when writing until I get through a few drafts.


I'm definitely a theme guy more often than not.

So, I guess I'll ramble a bit about a theme in a story I was working on but ditched...

I thought it would be a nice idea to do something with families. That seems to be something that people could latch on to really well. The most important part of a story is that thing that reader's attach to - the emotional heart.
Game of Thrones is popular and that has families in it. So, using GoT as some kind of basis, I decided to do a story about feuding families and in-family fighting.

So, by this point, the theme narrowed from family to "finding your place in a dysfunctional family".
To cover the wide breadth of familial relationships, I decided to focus the story on a handful of feuding families. To avoid being to similar to GoT, I decided to set my story in a more contemporary setting and give the family a more contemporary vibe. Instead of noble houses, they operate like mob families.
Mafia deals a lot with loyalty, paying debts and honoring contracts so I decided to apply that to something fantastical: the families enter "contracts" with demonic entities in exchange for power.

By the time I got to this point, I had the actual plot: the main character is rejected by his family, enters an alliance with a different entity (gaining greater power in the process) and returns home to show his family what he can do. In doing so, he gets their respect but not their love or acceptance as he is allied with an "outside contractor".
So, the main character's want is to gain a place in his family (which he gets pretty easily) but his need is familial love. Want + need = motivation. And motivation is the heart of a character.

So, there you go: the general theme, the specific theme, the backstory and the main character's motivation are all tied to each other.
After that, I just needed to create an external conflict which was as easy as throwing a villain into the mix. For the villain, I picked a patriarch of a rival family who attempts to "adopt" the main character while having a more sinister motive. The MC would rather join him since he's bitter towards his biological family but joining this guy would mean doing evil stuff which the MC is not very keen on.

So, yeah, that's it. I decided to ditch this story in favor of a bigger story that deals with heritage.


Unfortunately, I often wander into my story completely oblivious of its theme. About halfway through, I'll realize that I have some symbolic elements that tie into one another, and that a lot of the plot and several characters' development arcs all share a common theme. Once I'm aware of the theme, I use it. The instances where I knew the theme of a project before starting it can be counted on one hand.


toujours gai, archie
I did that with Goblins, Tom, but what I discovered by the end of the first draft was that I had too many themes. Or too many possible themes, anyway. The story didn't really come together until I'd sorted that out and chose one theme.

With A Child of Great Promise, I'm trying to be clear about the theme at the start, in hopes of avoiding that difficulty. I realize the theme may shift on me, but the goal is to keep it to a single theme.

I should add: for me. I also realize that readers see themes in stories that the author did not necessarily intend, and that's fine too.
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Article Team
Generally, I don't necessarily choose a theme before i write. As I brainstorm things, themes may fall onto the table. I'll take note and just keep moving on. As I write, I may keep certain themes in mind, but I won't commit to anything until I've finished the first draft.

It's at this time, I take a step back and evaluate what I have. I take notes on what I think isn't working and I have another go.

Eventually, certain themes will begin to stand out above the rest. They'll be themes that pop into my head and suddenly, I go aha and I understand a lot more about the story.

For example. The novel I'm editing right now started off in a very standard way, a story about the evil overlord vs the rebel factions. There were some twists and subversive turns I was going to take, but something about the story wasn't clicking. Then I realised the story was about Fathers and the sacrifices they make for career and family. It was like pulling on a drawstring and everything came together.


toujours gai, archie
@Penpilot, what you describe is what happened for me with Goblins. At first, I would have said the book is about the point in Altearth history when magic entered the world. Earth and Altearth diverge from that point. It was about when the goblins invaded and nearly ended the Empire.

Years later, I realized that isn't theme, that's setting. It's the context in which the story happens. The theme is about courage and sacrifice.

And, only very lately, I realize there's another theme in there. I don't develop it well, and I'm certainly not going to rewrite around it, but I like the phrase so well, I'm filing it away for future reference; namely, it's a story about the different ways in which grown-ups eventually grow up. It's (comparatively) easy to write about how young people grow up. But adults mature, too. It's slower, sometimes less obvious, but can be even more profound.

So, maybe once in a while, the seminal idea can be a theme.


I can't start writing without it. I'm super into theme. It's everything that helps the story move for me, what gives it flavor and a calling. Without it, story life is meaningless.

Theme, interestingly enough, is how I create my scenes. Every one must be tied to the "point" of why I'm writing this story. It exists within the most delicate intricacies of the tale: character's backstory, goals, motivations, flaws. It's in the setting, in every room character is in. And the whole idea is to have character come out of the story having conquered theme, and learned something from the experience.

For example, if I may indulge for a hot sec, I'm currently deep in the redraft of my historical novel, which is headed straight for a January deadline (so help me, God!). Now, the theme is "love after loss". One character has lost love to the Broadway stage, meaning his fiancee broke up with him in order to become a Broadway actress. The other MC has lost love to war. Death. This is a topic I'm genuinely interested in. I want to see what happens when I place these two together....how will they overcome the mountain of insecurities from having lost people they love?

Last night, I wrote 2 scenes: 1 in a restaurant where the MCs are dining with family, and the second where the hero is alone thinking about things, but having a hard time sleeping because of it. In the restaurant, they feel alone being strangers, essentially, in a room full of couples dancing and kissing and being affectionate. It reminds them of what they have lost. It accentuates the pain. In the second scene, narrator describes how the hero likes the heroine but he's still heartbroken. There's a conflict within him: the breakup has left a huge hole in his heart that he refuses to acknowledge, instead trying to fill it with another woman. So, where she's withdrawn, he's trying to fill the holes.

The theme is presented and each character reacts differently to it, and has different lessons they need to learn throughout the story. So whenever I get stuck, I think about theme, and it helps me figure out what the important lessons are for them. I hope that helps. :)


toujours gai, archie
Thanks, Chessie. Your comments are exactly why I don't want to begin my next novel without at least thinking about these things. Maybe I'll have a theme, or not, or will have six of them. But I do not want to put pen to paper merely because I have a plot idea and a character. I want to be better prepared. I believe the writing will both go better and be better.
Wow. This is so strange to me, because I've never planned theme; i don't really understand how it can be planned. I suppose it can, but my writing process is so organic. Theme is something that I observe developing in the story as I write it. It's...just so deep, so fundamental, so transcendent of mechanics, that it's hard for me to anticipate what the theme of a story will be prior to spending time on the page with the characters.

For me, it's subconscious. When I have a story idea that I decide to make something out of, I'm intrigued and entranced by the idea because it makes me feel something. It engages my mind. It excites me. And those special ideas have that effect on me because they're not just a concept, or a plot, or a character. They touch something deeper. and I have to write the story to find out what that deeper thing is. On the WIP i have put away for now, it took me a few years to figure out why I was so obsessed with it. And when I finally understood, boom. There was my theme. Now, I sense several other themes emerging in that one too, still nascent, but I don't know what they are and I haven't bothered to try to find out. They'll emerge when the time is right.

In my CURRENT WIP (assassin story) I figured out early on that my theme had something to do with identity. Something. I'm still figuring it out. Again, I didn't plan. This happened as I was writing. Like, I noticed things about my character I didn't really understand (Why is her name so important to her? Why does the identification tattoo she got upon entering the prison keep coming up? Why is she defensive about X thing? Why does she admire Y trait?) So, yeah. It came straight from the character. And just now, I'm trying to pinpoint that theme in more specific terms. It will take some searching, from what I've already written and what I plan to write; it might be finished before I fully understand it. But now I think i'm exploring the question of, how learning to love changes who you are. Hmm. i didnt articulate that until just now, but it feels right.

It's a major aspect of the CHARACTER though, and since my themes tend to proceed directly from character...it happens that way.

I can't imagine thinking to myself "this story's theme is X" before I even write it. I might think I know a possible theme, but it probably would change. I can't imagine wanting to write about a certain theme and trying to make a story to fit either. Like, if I wanted to write a story around the perils of loving someone...I wouldn't know how to give that shape. But if I had an image of two characters who were coming to love one another and knew words of their conversations and saw the ivy ruffling in the breeze in the backdrop of their kiss on a moonlit balcony...yeah. But for a while it would only be those images. I wouldn't really understand what I was writing about until I was writing it, feeling it.

Thing is...The theme would always have been there. it would have been the whole reason the image of the ivy and whatever had struck me as it did. because there was an idea there that was deeper.

I had to do that (come up with a story around a pre-determined theme) for a school assignment once. It was horrible. It would be incredibly frustrating and limiting, trying to plan a theme ahead of time. Because my stories don't do as they're told and they'd change and mess everything up...The theme would end up being totally different than i'd planned. So, i guess i could plan ahead, but there would be no point. lol.


My basic theme is about personal growth in adversity. What I have done is applied different zen sayings and other quotes to the main characters that are related to this and will hopefully provide unique direction as their characters develop. This subtle application will give a cohesiveness to the story. Hope I can pull it off lol.
I think it's kind of a double edged sword with theme. I find that thinking about themes too much can lead to trying to develop a message. It may just be me, but if I sit down and try and think of a theme I want to write about I usually end up with an idea that will sound preachy.

For me, I mostly think about what sort of story I want to write, who the characters are and what the central journey or arc is going to be and then try and figure out what the theme is as a method of distilling the essence of the book so that I can focus on it. Basically it's an exercise to keep me on point with my writing, note taking, world building, etc.
I'm currently reading "Creating Character Arcs...," by K.M. Weiland. In it, she claims that theme = character arc. She goes into describing the different aspects of three different types of character arcs, and tying the pieces of the character arc to a story's plot points, so that in the end, you have not only theme = character arc, but structure = character arc too. I hadn't thought of it that way, but the way she explains it makes sense.