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Words to the Wise

Theme: What Is Your Story About?

Only once have I been fired by a writer within minutes of beginning a consultation. I didn't deserve it, really I didn't. All I did was ask, What is your story about? Instead of telling me or, as many writers do, spluttering in confusion, this writer hucked her manuscript across the table and said, "Read it for yourself!"

The problem was that she didn't know what her story was about. Oh, she knew the characters and could tell me the plot, sort of, but she had never found her theme. "Plot is what happens. Theme is why," explains children's author Lois Peterson. This writer, despite struggling with her novel for five years, didn't know the why of her story.

Award-winning author Terry Bain met with a similar problem early in his writing career. Magazines kept rejecting his stories and people who read them said things he didn't understand, like "I don’t get it." Finally, he took one of his stories to a writers' conference, where it was reviewed by a novelist who asked him The Question, What is your story about? Bain couldn't tell him—he spluttered in confusion—and the novelist said, "Find out." Bain realized that his story wasn't really about anything. "It was all over the place. It was about everything. It didn't hang together." He, too, didn't know the why of his story. He hadn't found its theme.

Following his epiphany, Bain defined theme in his article "Theme Is What Unifies Your Story" published in The Writer Magazine. "Theme is the container for your story," he wrote. "[It] will attempt to hold all the elements of your story in place. . . . The plot, characters, dialogue, setting, voice and everything else are all shaped by the vessel."

Finding the theme of your story is a quest that may begin at any time: before you write, as you write, and even after you have finished getting the story down. After the writers' conference, Bain unearthed a story he had nearly abandoned, "thinking it pretty boring." After he revised it with theme in mind, it was published and then republished in a collection of prize stories.

Read more: How to Find Your Theme

References:

Terry Bain, "Theme Is What Unifies Your Story," The Writer Magazine, March 2010. Email me for a PDF.

Lois Peterson gives the best workshops for writers. No matter the topic, go. Just go.

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