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Words to the Wise

How to Find Your Theme

In 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 deeper.

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 them.

These exercises will help you focus and shape your story, article, or essay, giving it depth and leaving your reader satisfied.


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

Elizabeth Lyon, Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore, New York: Perigree, 2008.

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