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Monday, January 15, 2018

Can You Write to a Theme?

When it comes to talking about theme in the writing world, there is some advice that I find questionable: You should never write to a theme.

The argument is that when you write to a theme, it shows in your story. It becomes mechanical and "preachy." The story feels forced and mechanical.

But is it really true? Should you never write to a theme?

Recently I read an article where a well-known author argued that not only should you not start a story with a theme in mind, you should never ever make any attempts to put a theme in. He argued that writers should never care two cents about themes, and should just write the darn story.

Not only am I skeptical of this kind of advice, but I strongly disagree with it.

So many writers preach that writing to a theme never works and makes a story mechanical--but how can they prove this? Do they know the way every single writer has approached every single work in existence? So why would they argue this?

Because the only time they notice when a writer has written to a theme is when it's done poorly. When it draws attention to itself. When it is preachy. But if the theme is handled well in a story, people don't bother to wonder how the writer approached the theme. For all we know, they could have written the story with that theme in mind.

It can be very difficult to write to a theme--because it does run the danger of making a story feel more mechanical or preachy--but that doesn't mean it can never be done.

And it certainly doesn't mean you should never consider theme when composing your work.

My argument is that if you can truly understand writing and how the pieces fit together, you'll know how to handle theme without it being preachy. You'll know how to incorporate it without making your story feel mechanical.

When people say you can't write to a theme, what they're really saying is that it's difficult to write to a theme.

The themes in Harry Potter were guided, not random.

Also, I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that a writer should never give a thought about theme. I don't buy that. My favorite stories have powerful themes that the writer--if not from the beginning, through the process of drafts--was conscious of. After all, no one can tell me that the themes of love and death "just happened" in the Harry Potter series. They were incorporated.

Furthermore, some stories beg that a theme be taken into account simply because of the subject matter. If you are dealing with dark or graphic content, then it's almost required you have a powerful theme to justify and balance that all out--otherwise it's just gratuitous, a grotesque spectacle. If you are to write about kids killing each other in a post-apocalyptic world, than you sure as heck need to have the story be about "more" than what's on the page.

You don't have to write with a theme in mind at all, and you can ignore it through all your drafts, but if you do that, you run into other risks. Your story may have a theme that is detrimental to society. Imagine you did write The Hunger Games with no concern for theme--what would that story actually be teaching audiences? There's a real possibility it would be promoting bloodlust and violence, instead of discouraging it. See how that might be dangerous?

Some stories require you consider theme beforehand to balance out dark material

But if you want to write to a theme right out of the gate, how can you do that without it being preachy, mechanical, and formulaic? Well, as I said earlier, you need to have a firm understanding of how story parts fit together. If you can't discern what works and what doesn't, and when to press on the gas or when step on the breaks, how will you be able to successfully write to a theme? So it starts with studying theme.

Writing with a theme is very different than reading with a theme as an audience member, which is one of the reasons it's so tricky to write one intentionally. As readers, when we think of themes, we think of the "punch line," the end result, the message, the point, the moral. But as a writer, if you come out swinging the punch line all over the plot, it becomes preachy . . . and annoying.

The point should usually be the conclusion.

The conclusion to what?

Well, as another writing tip blogger, K.M. Weiland wisely states, when it comes to writing, themes are about asking questions.



I don't know about you, but that seems to go against everything my English teachers told me. I was told that theme is a statement--the message in the story. "Love conquers all" is a theme in Harry Potter. That's a conclusion. An answer.

(Side note: There is some argument over the use of the terms "theme," "moral," "message," or what have you, and what fits where, in the writing world, but what matters is you understand the concept of what people are teaching, more so than the terminology--which can ironically be ambiguous in the writing world.)

But remember, in order to have an answer, you need to have a question. Or better, more than one question.

Of course writing a story where you come out the gates swinging around a moral isn't going to work. Who the heck cares about or appreciates the answer before they have been faced with the question? Or, maybe in better words, the answer is more powerful after you've grappled with questions.

You'll find that, apart from the climax or denouement, often the most powerful thematic moments happen in scenes where the characters or story itself poses questions. Who am I? Can you be true to yourself and still be accepted by society? Can you show mercy and still suffice justice? Do the ends justify the means? Can innocence survive a wicked world?

Les Mis is a perfect example of an intentionally crafted theme that weighs real questions

Great thematic lines in stories don't swing the answer about, they get the audience to ponder, question, and consider. The more a theme is the focus in the story, the more it needs to pose questions.

Sure, you can put in advice and morals and answers here and there--pieces along the way or pieces of a bigger picture--but the main themes and the powerful themes pose questions before giving answers. And the questions aren't black-and-white either. The best questions are complex--that's when they feel real, when you as a writer and by extension, the audience, legitimately consider multiple, possible answers.

Stories often come off as preachy when they don't fairly consider all the answers--when what the author considers to be the opposing side is oversimplified, demonized, or stereotyped. It's not required that a good theme be overly sympathetic to all answers (though it can be), but it should at least be somewhat fair when considering them.

Like the plot line, the thematic line gains full power when it reaches the climatic conclusion--the answer: You do have value. You can be accepted. Mercy is more powerful than justice. Ends don't justify the means. Innocence can conquer wickedness. (The answers may be different, depending on what kind of truths you are telling.)

But similar to the plot line, your character needs to struggle to get there. He can't win on his first try. He can't have the answer before considering the questions. With both the plot, and the theme, there should be some level of struggle. The fear, the doubt, the questions.

So can you write to a theme? I think it can be done.

Does it mean you have to?

Heavens no.

You can easily discover and mold a theme as you go. It can even be a finishing touch.

But if you have a lesson, a moral, an answer, a theme you want to intentionally share to the world, you can also do that--just remember to ask and legitimately consider the questions it takes to get there.

It is my opinion, though, that most writers fit somewhere in the middle. They may have somewhat of an idea on what the theme will involve, simply because of the content of the story, but they discover parts of it through the writing process, and refine it to fit the finished piece.

The middle, in my opinion, is often the best balance. It's hard to start a story with a highly specific theme in mind, but it's also very hard to write a good theme when you ignore that part of storytelling altogether. Sometimes it's best to have an idea, and as you write, start asking questions.


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  2. These kinds of articles always puzzle me, because theme is one of the first things I figure out before I start to outline. I don't understand how you can write a story without it... Granted, I don't always understand the full scope it will reach at the moment I start writing, but it's still at the forefront of my mind.

    1. They are puzzling. I think today, I would maybe cry if I had to write a story without some idea of the theme.


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