Writing a Theme that Resonates Three Ways

Writing a Theme that Resonates Three Ways

When we write stories, we must connect with our readers. If we don’t, readers are unlikely to stick around—not everybody can be Nostradamus, whose cryptic quatrains often feel either prophetic or nonsensical. To connect our stories, line them with themes that awaken a deep response.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are three ways to insert connection-building themes into your stories:

Know Your Story’s Theme

New writers often confuse theme with plot. Themes are the values and the life lessons we’re all searching for. Plots are the events that act out the theme. But do you really know your story’s theme? Writers should be able to state their theme in a sentence or two—and the result will likely look very unoriginal. That’s because with theme, you’re reaching for the universal.

The universal is the shared truth or hope that we all recognize. It may be positive, such as “In the end, love wins.” It may be troubling, “No good deed goes unpunished.” Some use fairy tales or clichés to help tease out the theme. Another idea is to do a mash-up: “Frankenstein meets Legally Blonde.” By understanding your story’s theme, you can keep digressions in check and also attract readers to connect with that theme.

Know Your Life Themes

I’m always writing about belonging and family because I’m adopted. What do you care about? Take a look at your work and see if there isn’t a theme or pattern underlying the story’s character. Maybe it’s a need for justice or redemption. Maybe it’s about rising over opposition or that good triumphs over evil.

An excellent post by K.M. Weiland explores how our individual passions can influence the themes in our writing HERE. My personal passion, besides belonging, is wounded hearts and how they heal or not. Think about the themes you’re drawn to—even the books and films you love—to help you understand which themes resonate most in your life. By recognizing these themes, you’re more likely to write passionately about them.

Theme Plus Plot Equals Tag Line

When you begin to understand better your writing’s themes (both personal and character-wise) you can then start to construct a sturdy, brief tag line. A tag line (in film called a log line) is a snapshot description of your story. Tag lines help agents, editors and readers see at a glance what your story is about. Yet most of the tag lines my students start out with are too long and awkward. How can you streamline the result?

One way is to start with a query formula from Nathan Bransford, which boils down the story to one or two sentences.

[protagonist name] is a [description of protagonist] living in [setting]. But when [complicating incident], [protagonist name] must [protagonist’s quest] and [verb] [villain] in order to [protagonist’s goal].

Another is to choose the theme and then add in a few general details. EXAMPLE: Theme: Family is where you find it. My novel, The Fence My Father Built features a newly divorced single mom who goes to Central Oregon to find her lost father. Add in a smidge of the plot and you have a tag line: “A woman travels to Central Oregon in search of her lost father, only to discover that family is wherever you find it.” These simple methods will help your story stay on track, dig deeper into the emotional landscape and even help you with the dreaded elevator pitch or One Sheet.

What’s Your Story’s Theme? Why did you choose it?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

4 comments on “Writing a Theme that Resonates Three Ways

  1. This is something that I had a hard time with when I first started out. Once I understood that theme and plot are two different things it became much easier.

    It’s the little things that add up, isn’t it.

    • Bryan,
      Yes the little things are often really the big things. If a writer doesn’t understand the story’s theme, the little things are more apt to go off the rails.
      Keep Writing!

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