Theme is great, but what if you don’t know what the theme of your story is? What if you already wrote the story, and it’s too late to use theme to shape the premise?
Never fear. Here are 3 exercises to discover theme in your writing – even after it’s written.
As creatives there are unconscious threads woven throughout our works. Chances are that even if this is the first time hearing the word “theme”, your stories already have some element of theme in them.
What we aim to do is strengthen the themes that are inherently working in our imaginations by identifying what they are.
1) What kind of stories do you like?
What inspires you?
What resonates with you?
Which characters in other stories do you self-identify with?
Write down 5 of your favorite movies, TV shows or books. Can you identify the themes?
Do they have any similar or overlapping themes? Or, maybe they have different themes but similar thematic “elements” – brother/sister relationships, death of a loved one, leaving a small town, etc.
What do Newsies and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron have in common? Well, they were two of my favorite movies growing up, and they are both buddy love stories about outcast protagonists rising against an oppressive authority figure. These were the kind of stories I emulated as a young writer, and I still write about this theme over and over again today.
By identifying which stories are meaningful to you as an audience, you may start to understand patterns of meaningfulness in your own work.
2) How would you summarize your character’s arc?
This can be a challenging exercise, but try it this way. Write down one bullet point that explains who he is at the beginning of the story. Underneath that, write one sentence that explains who he is at the end.
A. Woody is Andy’s favorite and the “boss” of all the toys.
B. Woody and Buzz are both Andy’s favorites, and now they are best friends.
What happened in between is your character arc. Now see if you can summarize it.
Summary: Woody learned friendship with Buzz was better than being the “best”.
Now summarize the arc into one word or phrase.
Bonus hint! If you know the theme, but want to strengthen your character’s arc, reverse-engineer this process. What is your theme? Now ask yourself what the opposite of this theme is. Presto! There’s your character flaw.
In Woody’s case, the opposite of friendship is rivalry, and we see the theme of rivalry illustrated from page 1, when the toys lament being “replaced” by newer toys at Andy’s birthday party.
3) What do your characters have in common?
Make a Venn diagram with a circle for each of your characters. Then, write down personality traits or key backstory elements that define each character. See which commonalities your characters share – you may be surprised to learn all of your principle characters have strained parental relationships, “lucky” objects, fear of change, etc.
These commonalities may be part of your central theme, or they may form “secondary” themes that support the central theme. For example, a thematic element of family dysfunction may serve to reinforce the theme of reconciliation, while characters who share a fear of change may be telling a coming-of-age story.
It’s important to note that I almost never know the theme when I start writing. I find, personally, that theme is almost easier to locate after I’ve let my subconscious out in the first draft. This means that I pay extra attention to theme in editing – looking at character arcs, scenes, and motifs to make sure everything is contributing to a cohesive whole. In my next post, we will talk about how theme shapes conflict.
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