Properly Understanding Theme

You know that feeling you get when you’re supposed to have an image that pertains to the subject at hand, but you can’t actually find one that’s appropriate? The only recourse is to fall back on your gut instincts when it comes to eye candy (I was weaned on Final Fantasy, so I would know) in hopes of drawing in an audience.

Well, now that I’ve got your attention, let’s talk about theme. (I can’t promise this will have anything to do with the title image, but I’ll do my best to entertain you anyway) Modern storytelling has largely skewed what we think of as a theme, even going as far to replace craft entirely with it. And while theme certainly has its place, we still need to understand its proper role.

First: theme does not trump craft. Themes are better used like frosting: I don’t think your reader wants a cake made out of frosting. Craft, on the other hand, must always be present in all aspects of a story, and the rest of the story is built around the craft–including theme. You get the craft right, and the art will follow.

But what exactly is theme? Well, you may understand it to be something along the lines of “a message the writer wants to tell the reader” or “a moral to the story”. And while these are both true, they are not the whole truth. I could very easily put both of these in a story without there being a true theme.

A theme is the truth within a story’s lies. It’s the writer’s way of communicating not just information, but deep-grounded human wisdom through the untruth of the written story. It’s using characters that we can identify doing things we wish we could do to give us real-life lessons that aid us in our day-to-day lives. That is theme.

And, I might add, there’s a difference between theme and message: the former is subtle, and the latter is as obvious as an instructional sentence. Message is the daily dose of morality that used to be added at the end of every Saturday morning cartoon, from Sonic to He-Man (and knowing is half the battle…honestly, it’s not the best way to teach kids life lessons, but I wish they made a comeback all the same).

Theme is intrinsic to story: it’s showing us a lesson instead of telling us. It is, in effect, the best way to learn about life lessons: life has no manual, after all. We learn best when someone shows us every step of the way, taking us by the hand and imparting to us age-old wisdom without us fully knowing it.

Theme is not message. A message doesn’t have to be universal wisdom: it can be petty, political, selfish, skewed, or damaging. (just look at Wonder Woman 1984) Messages are dependent on circumstance: those circumstances might not be recreatable in a story that wasn’t meant for it, and therefore often requires shoehorning. A theme is universal, which means that it can be communicated across literally any medium involving people we can relate to. Messages mold the story to itself; themes naturally develop within a well-written story.

Theme is not just any old concept the author is trying to get across to you. It’s the tenets of humanity, of age-old morality: “Be kind.” “Treat others the way you want to be treated.” “Faith over fear.” Done correctly, these morals won’t seem like preaching, because they’re not: if we were all kinder to our fellow man, the world would genuinely be a better place for it.

The best tips I could give you when it comes to writing themes is A. Don’t try too many at once, and B. Write honestly. What people appreciate more than a profound theme is an organized one, and consolidating the amount of things you’re trying to communicate is key here. I made this mistake in my first book: if the theme doesn’t evolve on its own, pick one and stick to it.

The only other thing you can do is write honestly. Don’t pretend to be some high-and-mighty moral master who knows everything there is to be known about loving your neighbor as yourself. Be humble, and make no secret that you’re coming from a lowly point of view, and you have only a nugget of wisdom to impart. But sometimes…that nugget makes all the difference.

That’s all.


Be sure to check out my latest novel, Book 1 in the Praetors of Lost Magic Series, and our Publications page. Plus, I mean, it wouldn’t hurt to check out the Resources tab. It’s full of super helpful material and I promise it will help you out. Until then, writers!


Published by Van Ghalta

A cold, dark, mysterious character who purposefully wrote a story so that he could fit into it...A story where he himself WRITES stories, practices martial arts, blogs, plays airsoft, collects MTG trading cards, plays outdated video games, and writes weird, third-person bios for himself...

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