Finding the Theme of Your Story

In short, just keep writing. In elaboration, if you began your story without its theme in mind then you’re going to find it as you’re writing the story. By adding characters with unique points of view and putting them in challenging situations in an environment which shapes them, you ask yourself – and your audience – questions.

Could a boy trapped in generational poverty and debt escape through honed showman talents and trickery without losing his belief in good karma? Having made it, would he distain the people in his higher social status for never having sacrificed as he had? Then when he meets another man who managed to accomplish the same without having to sacrifice his believes, would the protagonist recognize his moral abandonment not as the choice which washed away the last of the muck, but instead the light he gave up to become the very people he detests?

I haven’t written this story. I don’t know the answers to these questions. But that fact makes me gleefully speculate.

As you write with the germ of an idea you’ll bombard it with questions. Have fun as you go. Spitball if the story would make sense if it took place in a subterranean cityscape. Ask what if the main character was a woman and not a man. Everything that comes to mind will force you to come up with an answer. Find the germ of an idea only you could think up with a question and answer only you’d have and that makes an original story.

The goal here is to get in the habit of asking why. Why did the protagonist choose A and not B? Answer: They didn’t study for the test and flipped a mental coin on it. Why did they do that? Answer: Their loveable failed gambler of an older brother taught them that trick. So are we meant to believe that this person takes such a stupid, illogical exercise as near gospel and still see them as a rational being? Answer: Not always. It’s a delusion where they don’t want to admit their beloved brother is a failure putting all he taught them, good and strange, which shaped their outlook on life into question; it’s comfortable to not ask why.

Not every answer needs to lead down a path of new questioning which will open up the story but when the main characters make major decisions, there should be a few to go around.

Once you’ve gotten a good portion of the story onto the page, take note of what questions you have about the story, what excites you and lingers when you’re away from your desk. When you write the story you want to read it will leave you jittery with speculation. Don’t worry if you’re thirty thousand words in and nothing has elevated itself yet. Not even if you’ve completed a first draft. Let it sit for a while. Time is the greatest filter for what’s good and bad. Whatever you have lingering in your mind at that point is the story’s theme. It was the most important and it stuck with you.

If you still have more to write then continue with that theme in mind. When you’re done with the first draft, or if you were done with the first draft by the time it came to you, then you can edit with that in mind. This builds up (what I call) the thesis-argument method.

Knowing the ending and how that ties into the theme, think of that as the thesis and everything which came before as evidence that proves it. Not everything you wrote early on will mirror the theme, inconsistencies abound. For starters, change the main character’s introduction to fit the theme.

If it’s short-sighted greed, take where she buys fruit at the market and have her shop around for a long time to find the worst haggling fruit stand owner and when she gets back home she’s just missed a visiting family friend. The main character says there’ll always be tomorrow and continue on as the story has her. The loss of that interaction may be worth the five cents she saved on the fruit in her mind. It’s a great low stakes, low reward opening which lets the theme build over time and doesn’t beat the reader over the head.

Every scene and action which has to do with the theme (ideally all of them) should support the theme. At intervals it should be philosophically countered by each unique conflict — in question format, and then ultimately upheld by the climax and conclusion.

I’ll share something I wrote today. It’s for a story currently 265,000 words long where I’m getting one of the themes down. Placing old characters in new situations presented this challenge to me. A Prince is meeting with his mother during a break from military academe. An only child, it was difficult for him to adapt to those surroundings. They haven’t seen each other in two years and he’s now taller than her. He thinks having a tutor to teach him over the break next year will aid in his test scores as it did for the best student in his class.

The prideful boast was that it would deliver him perfect grades for the year. She attempted to soften her comment claiming he’d already have bested his classmates at that point but it put an undue sting in the center of his head. Maintaining her image of him as the greatest child with the most potential was hampered by the cold figures posted outside his classroom. Twenty-nine other boys put him in third. Beyond the steppe surrounding the winter palace in all directions were forty million people.

This shines new light on his strenuous efforts to be the best student in his class. It then leads splendidly into his inherited responsibilities which he’s yet to gleam (which I’ve yet to write). Over two hundred thousand words ago I had a baby, an only child and heir to a throne. Consider how his mother sees him and then force him to have to compare himself honestly to other people of his age and class for the first time. Now I can continue to write his experiences at the academe and his interactions with his mother and the rest of the world through the theme of a big fish jumping out the small pond.

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