Writing Advice: Theme


Theme has always been a tricky thing for me to nail down in my writing. Sure, I studied English in college and examined the themes of many books. But when it comes to my own writing, I’m usually so focused on determining what happens in the plot and who the essential characters are that I neglect things like theme. But I think I’ve found a way to include theme in my next writing project.

According to a literary devices website, theme is “the base that acts as a foundation for the entire literary piece…[it] links all aspects of the literary work with one another and is basically the main subject.” Theme can be found in just about everything you read or watch. One theme found in Harry Potter is the enduring power of love. You might say the theme of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is balancing one’s responsibilities with one’s personal desires.

Recently, I read something on Jane Friedman’s blog that made the idea of theme a bit less murky for me. In her post about plot and outline, Jane talks about being able to describe your story’s theme in one sentence. She says, “You don’t have to worry about whether that one sentence is a cliché. Better to spend your time worrying about whether you believe that one sentence.” In other words, choose a theme that comes from your core, and which you can write about truthfully.

What I found interesting is that she goes on to emphasize the importance of originality and detail in describing your theme. Rather than saying your theme is about “finding love,” say that your theme is about “how a jilted woman finds love in her female friendships.” The more specific you can be, the easier it’ll be to describe your story to other people and to yourself. You might even consider writing down your theme and keeping it somewhere to remind you of your story’s main focus.

Thinking about theme in this new way, as something that can be described as “how X became X,” or some variation on that, has really helped me. I hope it helps you, and I hope you can find the theme of your next writing project. Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan