Themes: Weave Them into a Compelling Story

Thursday, July 19, 2018
Weave themes together to create a compelling story.
Recently I read an article about themes in literature. The author’s advice was to avoid the common and ho hum. Go instead, she said, for the unusual.

Wow. I have to disagree. Themes in and of themselves don’t have to be unique. They are the broad topics that summarize what your story is about. You create a unique story not with a single theme but in how you weave together themes (more than one) with plot and characters.

For example, you might write a book about the theme judgment, not to be confused with justice. Shakespeare wrote about judgment in Hamlet. Harper Lee’s story about judgment, To Kill a Mockingbird, moved the theme from a Danish castle to a Southern town. Pick up the pace and you can write about judgment by penning thrillers like those of Suzanne Brockmann, combining military maneuvers with crime.

Sound too weighty and grim? Not to worry. Women in business is one of the themes in Molly MacRae’s The Highland Bookshop Mystery Series, set in modern Scotland. Women in business is actually a common theme in the mystery genre with women managing bookstores, yarn shops and coffee houses while solving a wide variety of mysteries.

Very few books have only one theme and combining themes in unique ways is one way to make your story feel new. I just finished reading MacRae’s Plaid and Plagiarism. In addition to women in business, other themes include crime doesn’t pay and greed will lead to your downfall.

Take a look at this list of themes:

  • Beauty is only skin deep.
  • Circle of life.
  • Coming of age.
  • Corrupting influence of power.
  • Crime doesn’t pay.
  • Evils of ignorance.
  • Evils of racism.
  • Evils of science/technology.
  • Good vs evil.
  • Greed will lead to your downfall.
  • Heroism.
  • Judgment.
  • Justice.
  • Nature vs civilization.
  • Overcoming the odds.
  • The power of the natural world.
  • Simplicity is best.
  • Unrequited love.
  • Women in business.

Have I missed one of your favorites? Add it in a comment below.

If someone tells you that your theme is too ordinary, the problem probably isn’t the theme itself. Themes after all are what speak to us in a story. They help us know what to expect and frame how we think about it. In a romance, you know that one of the themes will likely be love lost. Most mysteries share the theme that crime doesn’t pay. In young adult novels, coming of age is a popular theme as teen readers struggle to make their way into the adult world. But a single theme isn’t all that a story is about.

The next time a story or novel feels slight, take a good hard look at your manuscript. Are the characters three dimensional? Do you toss complications into the plot? If you’ve done these things, take a look at this list of themes. Does one of them feature in a minor way? Can you make it stronger? Learn to weave together two or three themes to create a piece that is complex enough to hold reader interest.


To find out more about Sue Bradford Edwards' writing, visit her blog, One Writer's Journey.  Sue is also the instructor for Writing Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults. The next session begins September 10th, 2018.


Sioux Roslawski said...

Sue--I know one of the projects you're working on is an adult novel. What are the themes you're weaving into the storyline? (Curious minds want to know. ;)

Angela Mackintosh said...

I've always read that themes should be universal, which is agreeing with what you're saying. Maybe the author meant something else? Like an unusual plot or ways to enhance the theme?

I love your list! I frequently write about survival, man vs nature, grief, abandonment, abuse, violence, coming of age, guilt, bravery, bullying, self-esteem, social change, solitude, cultural diversity, betrayal, addiction, and the list goes on.

I'm also curious about your novel's themes! :)

Margo Dill said...

I guess I would add Finding Yourself or Finding Your True Self --which is also universal. You know there is that saying: there are no new stories, only thing you can change is the way we tell them. :)

Claire Cook who is an author I adore--both professionally and personally--uses the theme of reinventing yourself, which again, universal!

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

I'm combining dishonesty leading to someone's downfall with appearances can be deceptive. More will emerge as I work with the manuscript.

I hope she meant universal theme and unique plot but I reread it just to make sure and that is NOT what she said. Solitude, social change and cultural diversity are great themes!

Finding yourself and reinventing yourself are also good ones. And my main character will be in the midst of a reinvention so that would be one of my themes as well.

Speaking of which - off to write a scene. Thank you for the great discussion, ladies!


Renee Roberson said...

Some of the themes I've written about are how secrets can destroy relationships, it's never too late to right a wrong, coming of age, and my current WIP where the "good" character has an illness that affects his appearance in a scary way while the attractive character is rotten to the core. They sound a lot like some of the themes you are working with, too!

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