Pro Storytelling Tip: Obey the Theme

When someone asks you what your story’s about, chances are you dive into describing the plot. What if someone asks you what your story means? For many storytellers, this question gives rise to a third-trimester pregnant pause. And the reason is simple: We get so swept up in the bright lights of plot that the real attraction — the theme — gets outshined. It’s time we changed that.

The Theme Connection

If plot is candy, theme is a lifetime supply of brain food. A great theme drills into your mind and lives there long after the story has wrapped up. It sparks conversations, reframes your worldview, and might even change you.

“A great theme sparks conversations, reframes your worldview, and might even change you.”

Stories hand us scripts for life, little road maps we can tuck away and use to guide us. And it’s the themes beneath these stories that hook into an audience, connecting with the deepest parts of who they are. That is everything. Connection, after all, is the art of storytelling.

That being said, having theme without plot makes for a dull story. They’re destined to live together, happily ever after. But having plot without theme guarantees a story won’t live up to its full potential. It won’t sink its teeth into our psyche, and instead will slide away, forgotten. As they say, you may not remember what someone said (plot), but you’ll remember how they made you feel (theme).

Let Your Theme Be Your Guide

Some writers discover the theme as they write their story, but I’ve found that establishing my theme early on in the podcast writing process, even if I change it later, creates a beacon of light for me to follow. It’s the compass guiding the story.

“Establishing my theme early on in the podcast writing process creates a beacon of light for me to follow.”

But finding the theme is rarely easy. I had a helluva time finding the theme of a podcast episode I produced on Trisha Gum, the co-director of The LEGO Movie 2. I’m a huge stop-animation fan, and I loved the stories she told in her interview. I was just having trouble stringing them all together.

The coincidence that landed her a job at Robot Chicken (a stop-animation comedy show that spoofs pop culture), her love for storytelling as a child, the role of photography in her life — I had a sense of a theme emerging, but every time I shot an arrow, I hit dirt.

Trisha sits down for an interview with fellow The LEGO Movie 2 co-director, Mike Mitchell. (via Collider Interviews)

I sat on the episode for a couple months, tinkering here and there. Plenty of options seemed to work, but none of them felt right. Then one day, with my head clear, I sat down and saw the theme staring me in the face: Persistence makes anything possible.

Talk about irony.

Getting Lost in the Theme Park

Theme can be a wiggly little fella, making it seemingly impossible at times to grasp. But stick with it and keep in mind a theme can be sweepingly broad or crafted with laser-focused specificity. It can amplify the struggles of the human condition or whisper a soft truth about what it means to love a grandparent.

Don’t just ask yourself if there’s a theme in your story. Ask yourself if there’s a strong one that’s also concise. You should be able to sum up a story’s theme in a single sentence (keeping in mind most stories have multiple themes, but a single main theme). Doing so chisels away any trace of ambiguity and reveals your story’s core, bare and untainted.

“If you need more than one sentence to plate your theme, simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Soak it in. Then ask yourself if it’s worth anything…or if it’s not there yet. If you need more than one sentence to plate your theme, simplify, simplify, simplify. Ask yourself what your story, under all its layers, is really trying to say about the human experience.

It can be as simple as “Sons grow up to be their fathers” or as complex as “Trauma in youth causes a lifelong battle of understanding and self-acceptance.” A theme is the heart of what you have to say. Make it count. And let it help guide you.

Obeying the theme is crucial because once you get into the thick of writing, the cool-but-totally-unrelated possibilities will slither in: Forced narrative parallels. Introducing additional perspectives when one will do. Chasing irrelevant subplots.

“A theme is the heart of what you have to say. Make it count.”

The theme is your taser. Let the right ideas in — shock the wrong ones back to where they came from.

However, straying from your story’s theme can be a good thing. After all, you may stumble upon a better version of your theme or an entirely new one that blows the old one out of the water. The flipside is you’ll be sparking fires you’ll need to put out later. Just remember that once you find a great theme, you’re in possession of a guiding light. Let it shine.

Key Takeaways

  • Theme creates connection
  • Use your theme as your story’s guiding light
  • Cut the fat — every moment is an audition and you’re the ruthless director
  • Keep a theme simple, keep it sharp

Don't miss an episode of The Daily

Share With a Friend

About the Author


Join the Movement