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Many writers start with nothing but a topic, and the theme emerges as they write — birthed from the story. Never start writing without a topic. Otherwise, there’s little chance of finding commonality between your scenes, characters, world design and everything else in the story.

Other writers will start with a clichéd theme. No judgment; not all stories need an elegantly worded theme. For example, a silly comedy doesn’t need to make a profound statement. Just look back after your first draft. …

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There are topics, and then there are themes. The following is a list of topics:

· Compassion

· Courage

· Death and dying

· Honesty

· Loyalty

· Love

· Perseverance

· Importance of family

· Good vs. evil

· Reason vs. faith

· Man vs. nature

· Humanity vs. technology

· Change vs. tradition

· Chaos vs. order

· Individual vs. society

· Beating the odds

· Class struggles

· Survival

· Hypocrisy

· Greed

· Pride

· Acceptance

· Loss of innocence

· Self-awareness

· Escape

· Coming of age

· Benefits of hard work

· Power and…

story theme
story theme
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Some writers can pen eloquent scene descriptions. Some can build rich characters with crisp dialogue. Still others are masters of plot. You need all these and more to create a compelling story. But what holds it all together is the theme. And the easiest way to spot the theme is to look at the subplot or subplots.

Subplots stand out because they deviate from the main narrative. And like every other part of a good story, the subplot should address the theme. …

Story Theme
Story Theme
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What did the protagonist learn at the end of the story?

Example: humility

What is the big decision the protagonist must make at the end of the story?

Example: Riches or their humanity?

What’s the high-level concept for your story?

Example: A father’s love for his son drives him to face his fears.

How did the protagonist change over the story?

Example: started selfishly and became self-sacrificing

What common issue is the protagonist constantly wrestling with?

Example: acceptance

What are most of the scenes really about?

Example: commitment

What is the biggest issue between most of the characters?

Example: control

Story Theme
Story Theme
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When I raise the topic of theme, the most common question writers ask me is this: What’s the theme of my story?

My most common response is… the theme is the DNA of your story. So what Controlling Idea or Central Argument did you write into every scene? If a writer doesn’t know their theme, what are the odds they wrote it into every scene? These are short conversations.

Of course, there are many different ways to write. But I prefer to design the broad strokes and then adapt to inspiration as it strikes. So I never start without a…

Story Theme
Story Theme
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The theme tells you how to design your characters.

Your characters should live either within the code of the theme or outside it. They believe the theme or they don’t believe it. Therefore, you design your characters in relationship to the theme. If you have a theme that deals with authority, you might design a cast like the following:

· The iconoclast

· The defiant

· The narcissist

· The sycophant

· The paranoid

· The nebbish

Each one of these characters will have a different view of authority. Your protagonist does not believe in the theme, and then slowly…

Story Theme
Story Theme
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Here’s how to tell whether your theme is working.

Your protagonist should have an internal and external need. Both needs are connected through the theme. So if your theme is working, most of your scenes should be designed to be a net win for one need while also being a net loss for the other need.

It’s how you design theme into your story. And the first time you work with theme, you should probably address it while you’re breaking the story. I use cards. Other writers use outlines or treatments. …

Story Theme
Story Theme
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Your theme is the connective tissue between the internal and external needs of your protagonist. Allow me to translate.

Your protagonist wants something. That’s the character’s external need. Indiana Jones wanted to find the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If your protagonist doesn’t want something, you have a profound problem with your character and should hang your head, stop reading and go fix that. We’ll wait…

We’re not gonna wait.

Your protagonist also has an internal need. Something’s missing or broken in the character’s life that needs to be repaired by the end of the…

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The theme is the central controlling idea of your story. It’s why you decided to write it. And that’s why it’s so personal to a writer.

Suppose you wanted to write about peace, or love, or vengeance. All three are universal themes, but they’re also pretty superficial. You have to dig deeper. Are you actually passionate about living in that world for months? Do you have experience with the subject? How does this subject speak to your soul? How will your unique perspective make the story different?

The theme is the reason the main character takes up the quest for…

Mike Johnston

Advertising Creative | Production Executive | Story Monkey at Family, a Seattle Advertising Agency

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