Writing Tip: Pick Your Theme


In an attempt to get back to our regularly scheduled programming, I’m once more sharing a writing tip I’ve learned while drafting…

Namely: on why it’s not good to cram fifteen themes into one story.

I’ve written before about how you really shouldn’t lead with theme when first drafting, but in case you don’t feel like reading that again, I’ll summarize: your stories should lead with story. You can have the best theme ever, but no one’s going to get to it if the story that expresses that theme isn’t engaging.

You should have a purpose to your story in mind when you first sit down to write, for sure. But when you first draft, you should really be concentrating on getting the story out. Finish the first draft, look at your story, ensure the story structure and characters are sound–and that’s when you can decide what the story’s actually all about. That’s when you dive back in and strengthen the thematic concepts that have (hopefully) begun to emerge.

It’s very possible that you’ll see more than one theme expressed in your draft. Which is great! But a caveat to this: when you start trying to express several themes all at once–that’s when it gets messy.

Take my most recently complete draft, “The Play Story”. In it, a fifteen-year-old girl loses all her friends and joins the high school stage crew and there befriends people she had previously thought of as losers, as well as gets to know their cantankerous leader with a dark secret.

So already I have themes of friendship and belonging, of judging people without knowing them. There’s some bullying, some slut-shaming, and through all this a current of feminism. There’s also the very strong thread of acting and performing and being yourself versus being who people expect you to be. Of lying and truth-telling and the fine line between the two. There’s a coming-of-age element as well, the things you have to deal with as you grow up. On top of all of that, the play they’re performing is Hamlet, so I tried to work the themes of that play into the story (thinking versus acting, vengeance, madness, etc. etc.)

So. That’s a lot of themes.

I’m currently taking a break from that draft (because I need objectivity to be able to edit) but when I dive back in and start refining and working on theme, I’m going to have a good amount of work to do.

So what’s one thing that can simplify this?

Pick a main theme and stick to it.

All these themes are fine and good, but cramming them all into one YA novel is not fine and good.

When I go back to revise, I’m going to have to see which theme is the most important, and work on strengthening that one–and perhaps at the same time, downplaying the themes that are less important. This doesn’t mean I have to throw them out altogether–it just means I need to prioritize.

(To be honest, the themes I’m thinking are the least important are the ones actually reflected in Hamlet, which means I may need to rethink the play that they perform and make it more about lying and acting, which means changing it to As You Like It, which will require a major rewrite, not to mention a reread of that play … but no one ever said being a writer was easy. Well, okay, I’m sure some people did, but they were so wrong.)

But I want to write about all these things! you shout. They’re all important to me.

I’ve got news for you: you can write about all these things. Just not in one story.

How about you? Have you ever had issues with too many themes? How did you choose what to run with?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Pick Your Theme

  1. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever actually thought about the theme for one of my stories. I’ve always written them for fun and let the story flow. Sometimes I’ll plan out a bit of the overall story, but I don’t think I’ve thought of the concept of theme for any of those.

    Does that make me a bad writer? Does it make my writing seem a bit more chaotic? Well, if I ever manage to get something published, I’ll find out more!

    Anyway, good article. Thanks for sharing.


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