The Elusive And Confounding Core Competency That Is “Theme”

Among the six core competencies that surface and triumph in a publishable story (that includes movie scripts, by the way), none are quite as slippery, challenging and, too often, confusing as theme.

Oh, it’s gotta be there, no doubt about that.  But getting it into the narrative, as well as the sub-text of the narrative, and doing so effectively and with stealth, can be the Achilles Heel of storytelling. 

Try too hard and you’re preaching.  Leave it to chance and your theme may be as elusive and fuzzy as an episode of Seinfeld, which proclaimed itself a show about nothing.

All effective stories are thematic.  Even if they’re wildly entertaining and thrilling and scary, which isn’t what makes them thematic but is often what makes a thematic story readable.

The reason stories work is that readers develop empathy for the character, which jacks the ensuing vicarious ride to a higher level.  Stories are always about characters, and characters don’t work unless we care.  By definition, that alone is thematic,

Question is, is theme driving the story, is the story driving the theme?  Both can work… but only when the writer knows the difference and makes an informed choice on that issue.  

Choosing wrong can kill its chances.

So what is theme? 

If you have to ask, your story is already handicapped.

Theme is how a story touches you.  What and how it causes you to think about.  How the story mirrors and/or comments upon real life.  Theme says something worth saying, even when it’s obvious.

“Love is complicated,” for example.  Obvious, but worth saying over and over, and the fodder for an eternity of stories in all genres.

Theme is not concept.  Concept is what the story is about dramatically.  

Theme resides outside of the story, because it remains when the story is over.  Theme is truth, theme is belief, theme is consequence and meaning and importance.

Unlike concept and character and structure (core competencies all), you can actually stumble upon an effective theme without giving it a whole lot of literary thought.  It’s almost impossible to write a story about human beings squaring off with problems without a theme emerging on some level.

If you write a story about a terrorist, for example, and that terrorist is your supposedly sympathetic hero, then you are saying something about terrorism, intentionally or not.

Intentionally is always better.

Theme is like a yard.  Stuff’s gonna grow out there, even when you don’t pay attention.  Question is, do you want a patch of weeds, or a carefully coiffed, Sunset-magazine quality showpiece that sticks in the memory?

If you want to publish, you need to lean toward the latter.

When a viable theme happens without the writer paying much attention – and it does happen – that’s because theme is ingrained in the DNA of the story’s other elements.  Some genres are actually theme-driven: it’s hard to write a love story without a clear theme surfacing.  Everything about love is thematic, like it or not, realize it or not.

In the search for story – either organically growing the story through a series of drafts, or planning the story’s sequence and elements ahead of time – theme can be proactively envisioned and engineered.  Trust me, when John Irving wrote The Cider House Rules, he knew precisely what he wanted to say about the issues of abortion and right to life, and like the literary puppet master he is, both sides of that coin were explored with deft sensitivity and impact.

When Stephanie Meyer writes about hot pubescent vampires, she’s writing about young love and social separation.  Her stories don’t work without that thematic level.  Maybe she intended it that way, maybe it just happened, but in either case her pages are chock full of thematic DNA.

Same with Dead Man Walking, the 1995 debate-fueler starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandan, a film that challenged belief systems and no doubt changed a few minds by the closing credits.

A movie opens tomorrow called The Dilemma, produced by Ron Howard and starting some actor you don’t normally think of as highly thematic.  The central question is all theme – what would you do if you saw your best friend’s wife making nasty with someone else?  That’s also the concept, by the way, but don’t be confused, that isn’t always the case.  In Raise the Titanic, for example, the concept was raising that ship from the ocean’s floor, but that was definitely not its theme.  Government and Big Business corruption was.

Remember the 1993 film starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore?  Sure you do… you and your significant other argued about that one all the way home from the theater.  Why?  Because the theme slapped you upside the head.  You weren’t arguing about the movie, you were arguing about reality, about your life and what you would do in that situation.

The concept was the proposition of allowing a spouse to sleep with someone else for a badly needed one million dollar payoff… while theme was delivered as questions: what would you do if faced with that same opportunity?  What is the nature and limits of fidelity and adultery?  Does mutual consent come with a price tag?  What are the consequences of shattering that which cannot be restored?

Character arc is theme.  Heroism is thematic.  Sub-text is a great vehicle to deliver theme, as is sub-plot.  Whodunit… that’s not thematic until you add characters to the mix.

So many options, so little clarity.  Once you understand what theme is, and isn’t,  and how it empowers stories to greatness,  you are suddenly able to design your stories for optimal thematic impact.

Even in mysteries.  Michael Connelly is the reigning king of the mystery whodunit, not because his other core competencies are the best you’ve seen in that genre (they’re terrific, by the way), but because the thematic power of his stories are, and in a way that redefines his genre in that regard.

What stories have stuck in your mind because of their themes?

Next post: Can story development begin with theme in mind?  We’ll look at one way – and it’s already right under your nose – that you can make that work for you.


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

19 Responses to The Elusive And Confounding Core Competency That Is “Theme”

  1. Thanks immensely. The hardest of the six core compentencies for me to grasp has been theme. I think I’m a bit closer now.

  2. Patrick Sullivan

    Theme has begun to fascinate me more and more as I build more novel projects to work on. My last finished rough draft started as one idea, turned into what it was, and at the same time I had it’s theme.

    I’ve found (for me, obviously) that the easiest way to get it to work is start figuring out all the structure pieces, and see where things are pointing on that front, and then go back from whatever point I am (just having the big points, a beat sheet, whatever) and re-emphasizing whatever theme is speaking to me in as many of the scenes as I can.

    Since I do that before I begin the actual prose, it takes only an hour or so and the end everything feels much more tight, thematically. Best of all, I didn’t have to waste a ton of time rewriting to get it in there deeply.

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  4. Another way to think of theme is… it’s context. It’s the air the story breathes. The water in which its creatures swim. It’s an underlying belief system held by characters, a social environment pressuring and defining everything that happens. We get to see the consequences — good and bad — of these belief systems. Theme is natural law — karma, if you prefer — exerting its ultimate and inevitable force on the characters, on the circumstances and on the outcomes.

    There are so many ways to describe, discuss and debate theme, and in a good story there are usually multiple themes . There are intended themes and themes that pop up on their own. No wonder this is such a challenge, and thus, the very thing that separates the wheat from the chaff in the publishing game.

    Theme is resonance. When people “love” a story, it is almost always because of how it makes them feel. And that’s theme at it’s best.

  5. Martha Miller

    You’re hitting on a very important part of story telling that is often skimmed over in writing craft books. Thanks for emphasizing it for us all and making it clear.
    I have always liked Marjorie Reynolds’ (author of “Starlite Drive In”; “Civil Wars of Jonah Moran”) take on theme and premise, which helped clarify these elusive elements for me: Theme is what your story is about; Premise is how you feel about the theme, thus what you’re saying about it in your novel. For instance, a theme might be Good versus Evil. The premise of you novel could be: the battle between good and evil still rages and neither side has won–yet.

  6. “Biting the Sun” by Tanith Lee is one book that comes to mind. It doesn’t seem to be a very well-known book, but for some reason I just love it. It was one of those books where I felt like I really connected with the main character, but after reading your post, I think it was probably the theme of the book, someone trying to figure out where they belong in the world, and how to gain meaning in a life that seems meaningless, that really resonated with me at the time I was reading it.

    In my own writing, I hate to admit that I’ve never really thought about theme too much, and it’s something I’m definitely going to have to pay more attention to. On the other hand, I know I really dislike books that feel like they are deliberately about something the author believes in and is trying to preach at me, and I don’t want to come off that way. I always feel like the characters and their story is what’s most important, and theme is just an added dimension. But maybe I’ve been thinking about theme all wrong. Thanks for the eye-opening post!

  7. The first time I considered theme in my own work was when a writer friend told me about how the same themes slide through several of my books. I read her discussion and had to realize she was correct – but I hadn’t seen it myself. Now I see it, but still aren’t to the point of really understanding it or how to use it to better my writing.


  8. Misty Dietz

    Kick ass post as usual, Larry! I think I’ve finally wrapped my head around “theme.” I realize it’s been in my story all along (second chances/redemption), but what I was missing before was how that awareness could be an instrumental string that could resonate through the whole work. Awesome.

  9. Curtis

    “when John Irving wrote The Cider House Rules, he knew precisely what he wanted to say about the issues of abortion and right to life, and like the literary puppet master he is, both sides of that coin were explored with deft sensitivity and impact.”

    Assuming a writer is aware of the story theme/issue, it seems to me that the power of theme is greatly increased when, as you stated, “both” sides of the theme/issue are presented equally.

    “…Seinfeld, which proclaimed itself a show about nothing.”

    Well, I’m thinking even “nothing” is a theme. It is called nihilism.

  10. Patrick Sullivan


    To me it’s more than just the fact you bother to present both sides of an issue. It also means that you can explore different facets within the sides, PLUS you can start putting much more subtle bits in the dialogue and descriptions for those paying attention.

    The more pervasive (without beating the reader over the head) the theme is, the more it can be appreciated.

  11. Great post, Larry – thank you. One of my favorite books (and some will slam me for this) is Stephen King’s, “Christine.” The themes of friendship, love, goodness and nurtured evil fuel that crimson car and twist a concept that could’ve failed into a killer story. I vow to achieve the same artistry.

  12. Ah, yes. Theme is a tough nut to crack, but after we’ve done a couple hundred, it becomes easier, right?

    As Larry says, “Theme is how a story touches you. …” Being one of the Six Core Competencies, it must be part of the story.

    It is a What we do as writers — either derive the theme from what we’ve designed so far, or create a theme to fit the other parts to. Or anyplace in between.

    How we do it is the creative side. Too much is preaching, too little leaves the reader wanting. We labor, create and write for the reader.

    As Patrick Sullivan says in his comment, working out the theme is part of the design phase, before we start in on the deathless prose. Work it in as part of the other Whats of concept, structure, character, concept, etc. These all must be aligned and supporting each other for our story to work – and for us to work most efficiently.

    For example, if we’re writing a black comedy, a theme of “love conquers all” probably doesn’t fit. Just to throw in a really broad them of “Good vs. Evil” is tough, too. We need to focus in a bit more on theme so it supports the concept (which we keep tweaking as high as we can) and the rest of the Competencies support it.

    In a series, we should have an overall theme, then each book in the series will have its own theme. Multiple themes, either in an individual book or in the series, must be aligned. Pretty funky to have a theme “Love conquers all” yet having another such as “Good guys never win” working against it. All must be aligned.

    Better to spend several hours on the design phase — which still requires a ton of artistic creativity — than to do YAD (Yet Another Draft).

    Now go write something great that will tear out our heartstrings yet have us laugh with joy at the end.

  13. Phyllis Quatman

    You nailed it in this post, Larry. If as writers, we first identify our theme, paste it on a sticky on our computer, and write every scene to incorporate that theme in some way, we’re on our way – provided we combine theme with the other core competencies, of course!

  14. Monica Rodriguez

    Excellent break down of an elusive concept, Larry. Theme may be with us for every story, but often I think many of us feel it’s easier to grasp at water than “theme.”

    On the other hand, I’ve written my last two stories planning out the story structure, and with both I found a theme emerging by itself. Another reason to plan ahead!

    And I love Phyllis’s suggestion to post the theme on your computer while you’re writing. Excellent idea!

  15. Andrea

    So exciting to read this! I get inspired by song lyrics almost all the time. And if it’s not a song – a sentence in that song – which gets me started, it’s always songs that get me going on my story, choosing the right feelings for the scenes. My writer’s life depends on songs.
    Great post. Thank you!

  16. Thanks for this wonderful post! My usual themes also spill from one novel to the next.
    I read The Road last year, and though the concept terrified me to the point I could only read a few pages at a time, the theme of what makes a human being what he/she is has stayed with me and make me question aspects of my life.

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