Words to the Wise
How to Find Your Theme
Theme: What Is Your Story About? I told you about a couple
of writers who had tied themselves up in knots because they had
neglected to find the theme of their story. One of those
writers, on being unable to answer the question, What is your
story about? took the advice of someone wiser and began
mining his story for the precious seam that ran through it. Once
he had narrowed it down to a theme he was satisfied with, he
began rewriting: he added a new ending, removed unnecessary
details and scenes that no longer fit, and added new ones that
seemed appropriate—always with an eye to the theme he had
identified. The story went on to be published, to some acclaim.
That is one way, a
very good way, to find your theme in whatever you are
writing—fiction, nonfiction, article, or essay. The author, Terry
Bain, cautions against beginning to write with a theme in mind.
Instead, he says, "just start by telling a story. Telling a
story will take you into the heart of the story, and at the
heart there will be a theme that you can dig out and
crystallize." Elizabeth Lyon, in Manuscript Makeover,
says that even after rereading your work, you may still find
yourself unable to articulate your theme, "or you might come up
with a bushel of themes." In either case, you will need to dig
How to do this?
Start by jotting down what occurs to you as you write, read, and
rewrite. Ask yourself questions: Do the characters' actions
point to some primary need, like love or healing or conquest.
What about that love or healing or conquest? Where does
it take you? Where do you want it to take the reader? Look for
repeated words or images and circle them. You created that
repetition for a reason. What was it? What were you trying to
achieve? Circle, too, words or phrases, even sentences or
paragraphs, that seem to be essential to your story, that if
changed or deleted would alter your story fundamentally. Listen
to those passages, because your theme may be residing within
These exercises will
help you focus and shape your story, article, or essay, giving it
depth and leaving your reader satisfied.
"Theme Is What Unifies Your Story,"
The Writer Magazine, March
me for a PDF.
Lyon, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction
Writer Can Afford to Ignore,
New York: Perigree,
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