This is actually a really great, but really hard and subjective question. What the story of a theme is, or how it forms, is something that I, personally, didn’t really think about until It was asked.
WHAT IS A STORY’S THEME?
Starting simple; we should discover what we even mean when we talk about creating or finding a theme. The theme of a story is not the plot, and it is not the moral. For example;
- The plot of a story is that Josie’s friend died, and she wants to bring her back to life.
- The morals of the story are that messing with the balance of nature has horrible consequences and that grief is an emotion we all must come to terms with.
- The themes of the story are loss, fighting nature & the finality of death.
THEME OR CONTENT?
There are two ways to look at this;
- How can a story have a theme, without the story existing?
- How can you write a story without knowing your theme?
I tend to be of the first school of thought; because I believe the story is of the utmost importance and comes before all other criteria; such as marketability, political correctness, etc. It’s not a popular opinion; but it’s mine. I believe in freedom of expression and freedom of art. I also believe that what an author wanted to say is not as important as what they did say.
So, I try to find the theme of my story within my writing. For example; the last project I’m working on is set in the Post-Apocalyptic future of a World that isn’t our own. I didn’t know if when I got the inspiration, but, it was an idea-based inspiration. After I did research, created a setting, worked out some outlining and character; I realized my theme was staring me in the face.
It’s about ideas; crafting and being allowed to express them. It’s about respecting history. It’s about the internet; and whether what is started there can be truly tangible. (Spoilers: you know the answer.)
Yet, there are people who begin with the theme of the story.
It all comes down to what your inspiration is. Some people, imagine while riding on a bus or sitting at school/work, a girl who can summon the world of dreams into reality in the palm of her hand. Then, they go and write a story about that and the theme comes later.
Some people, get inspiration from emotion instead of a sudden idea. So, they might be going through a rough time. Let’s say they’ve been made homeless, and they decide they want to write a story about being homeless to bring awareness to those people; and give them something to relate too. People who have ever been in that situation would read it, and relate to it. However, they still need an interesting story; so then they work on that.
FINDING YOUR THEME
Do stories need a theme? Ehh. Even if you don’t intentionally put one in there, they will end up having one. So what we’re really talking about when finding the theme of your story is simply knowing what you want the theme to be; knowing what you’re trying to say.
This is where feelings start to get hurt. Some people believe that simply having a character who does awful things in your story constitutes the author saying that these things are all right to do. But it’s so much more than that. It’s how the characters around them, and the narrative, and the words, handle that character. It’s why so many people think that books like Twilight are saying it’s okay for your love interest to stalk you.
If you all ready have something written; Read it.
Don’t worry. You might not know your theme when writing your first draft. There’s no reason to force it. When you read through your work, try to see what it is saying to you.
You can also try reading other books and short stories. See if you can jot down what the plot is, the moral is and the theme is. See if you can identify the theme. Sometimes, it has little to do with the plot; but it is made obvious in events and even how the character’s talk to one another.
Ask yourself the following;
- Do I need to tell a story about this?
- Am I happy with what I am saying?
I didn’t create my theme. It was there. My character’s felt it and argued over it. But I was happy with it, and that’s the main thing. I feel it reflects my beliefs, and is something I’d be proud to put out there into the world of thought.
If you’re not happy with your theme, if you think it is saying something you do not agree with; then rethink it. You don’t have to change anything about your plot or characters if you don’t want too. Just approach them from different angles. Approach the life lessons they learn, their relationships and their beliefs.
Remember: We’re not working with a moral here. Your theme, for example, might be possession. That doesn’t mean you have to compose a propaganda piece either in favor of or against being possessive or possessing goods, etc. You just have to be aware what your scenes relate to.