A Guide to Themes

· resources,theme

What is a theme…

I ask myself this question a LOT. (Yes, even after multiple books.) And I swear the way we talked about themes in high school has never really been helpful.

I think a lot of writers struggle with themes and how to incorporate them into our stories. I’ve gotten better at being intentional with this before I start drafting.

Themes are hard. Sometimes, I can point them out in a movie or book and other times, it can be a struggle. Generally, the way I try to boil down the theme is by asking myself what the story is about on a VERY basic level. (Or the way Nick Miller describes his book on the show New Girl, “it's about a man who has nothing, who risks everything, to feel something.”)

All New Girl references aside, this is actually a great way to look at theme because you’re not letting any plot elements or tropes get in the way.

For example, if I describe Wolves on a super basic level, the story will sound something like this: “It’s about a lonely girl who learns how to open herself up to relationships again after a devastating loss.” Or, even simpler: “it’s about a loner girl and a feral wolf who learn to become a family.”

Okay, so we’ve got down the theme! Great job! Now…how do we apply that to writing the story? 😬

It doesn’t have to be hard! (Though sometimes, it just is.) When I was drafting Wolves, I made myself a note on my Trello board: “Main Theme - learning to accept new family/friends into your life.” So, I knew from the get-go what I wanted this story to be about. When I started developing the overall story, I always knew that I wanted it to be about a girl who becomes friends with a wolf.

To make that journey more impactful, I realized that my main character needed to be a loner by choice as well as circumstance. That way, as she learned to trust this wolf, the readers would see how she struggles and grows and it would be a more emotional story.

Remy’s story in Storm was SO much harder. I had what I thought was the theme but as I kept re-writing, I realized that the theme I wanted wasn’t the theme that was showing up in the writing. At one point, I wanted Remy to be a perfectionist (stemming from her genetic modifications and upbringing) and have the story be about control and letting go. That didn’t stick much. At least not in that form.

The more I revised trying to get at the heart of who Remy was, the more the themes finally shone through. The theme of the story finally became: “it’s about an ex-undercover spy learning to accept her past, who she is, and deciding how she will shape her own future.”

See? Themes can be simple…or really hard. 😅

Though, I think what truly works for me is to develop the theme more in revisions than drafting. Even with Wolves where I knew what I wanted the theme to be so clearly, I went back during revisions and strengthened it. I added scenes showing Sena’s past relationship with her mothers to illustrate how her family was before. I added some details to the antagonist, Boss Kalba, to show how his idea of ‘family’ was toxic in comparison. All of those little touches built on the theme and made it more impactful.

The same is true for Storm—even though it took me awhile to realize what I was actually writing about—once I did, the threads of that theme were already there in the draft. I just had to tease them out, make them stronger and more detailed.

Like most things in writing, there is no one, correct way to write theme.

If you’re not sure what themes you want to explore in your stories, that’s totally okay! Theme is something you can expand on in revisions to really make your characters more gripping and your story more impactful. For those of you in that camp, don’t stress about it during first drafts, let your writing guide you. For those of you who know from the get-go what your stories are about, kudos! Tell us your secrets! But also, you can still use revisions to help those themes shine through. 🔥

How do you incorporate themes into your writing? Do you like themes? Hate them? Tell me everything—either in a comment below or find me on social media.



A version of this post appeared in Wolves and Wonder, my monthly newsletter that includes no-nonsense writing advice along with book updates and sci-fi inspiration. Get it in your inbox; you'll love it.