Exploring Theme: A Key Component to Successful Writing

Discover one of the key components to successful writing—theme. In the following excerpt from Story Engineering, author Larry Brooks explains the difference between theme and concept. Plus, learn why theme is crucial to developing and writing a successful story.
Author:
Publish date:

Discover one of the key components to successful writing—theme. In the following excerpt from Story Engineering, author Larry Brooks explains the difference between theme and concept. Plus, learn why theme is crucial to developing and writing a successful story.

Defining Theme

Have you ever put down a novel or walked out of a theater and thought to yourself, what the hell was that about?”

Probably not. Agents and editors and script readers experience that moment all the time, but the reading and moviegoing public is shielded from that response by virtue of the work these folks put into the finished product. A well-told story, the kind that gets published or made into a film, usually doesn’t elicit such a response. As an intelligent reader or viewer you intuitively know what it was about, and usually on two levels: it was about the plot…and, in a different experiential context, it was about what the story means.

The latter is called theme. It is one of the Six Core Competencies of successful writing in general, and storytelling in particular. Because great stories, the kind that turn their authors into A-list brand names, have both realms in play.

For example, you probably read The Da Vinci Code.Based on the number of copies sold, pretty much everybody did. It was about a crime, a heinous murder of a museum curator who left a clue about his killer written in his own blood. It was a mystery that became a thriller when the hero found himself in the crosshairs of unseen bad guys.

In terms of what The Da Vinci Code was about, that was the plot.

But The Da Vinci Code was about so much more than its plot. It was about the veracity of the dominant religion of Western culture. It was about a speculated truth that had been, according to the story, swept under the rug of time. It was about the lengths people will go to in the name of what they believe.

On a thematic level, this was what the story was all about.

What is Theme?

In my workshops people always ask about the difference between theme and concept. Which, once you understand it, is like asking about the difference between chopped spinach and filet mignon. They’re two items on the menu of our stories, completely separate and quite necessary to a balanced diet. Either one, served alone, is merely a snack. Tasty, but not completely filling or nourishing.

To put it in its most simple terms, theme is what our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general. What is says about life and the infinite roster of issues, facets, challenges and experiences it presents. Theme can be a broad topical arena, or it can be a specific stance on anything human beings experience in life.

It can be a principle or an inevitable stage of growing up. It can be subtle or it can be on the nose. It can be contextual, or it can be the centerpiece of the story. And because it can be all of these things, or seemingly none of them yet strangely moving, it is often confusing to writers who can’t quite grasp what it means to the craft of storytelling.

Theme is the relevance of your story to life. To reality, as reflected in your fiction. Theme is love and hate, the folly of youth, the treachery of commerce, the minefield of marriage, the veracity of religion, heaven and hell, past and future, science versus nature, betrayal, friendship, loyalty, Machiavellian agenda, wealth and poverty, mercy and courage and wisdom and greed and lust and laughter.

Theme is life itself, as manifested in our stories, as seen through our characters, and as experienced through our plots.

Core Competencies | Story Engineering Larry Brooks

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

IndieBound | Bookshop | Amazon
[WD uses affiliate links.]

Rajani LaRocca: On Letting Your Synopsis Guide Your Writing

Rajani LaRocca: On Letting Your Synopsis Guide Your Writing

In this article, middle-grade author Rajani LaRocca discusses how the synopsis for her newest release, Much Ado About Baseball, guided her writing process.

From Script

Adding Your Personal Connection to Your Stories and Building Your Brand As a Writer (From Script)

In this week’s round up brought to us by ScriptMag.com, Script’s Editor Sadie Dean interviews Dickinson creator/showrunner/EP Alena Smith, learn how to divide and conquer as screenwriter in the business and creating fruitful relationships. Plus, a brand new Script Talk video interview with writer/director/actress Djaka Souaré about her journey as a mentor and mentee in the WOCUnite and #StartWith8Hollywood mentorship programs.

Poetic Forms

Englyn Penfyr: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the englyn penfyr, a Welsh tercet form.

Editorial Road-Mapping: Start Your Self-Editing Process Here

Editorial Road-Mapping: Start Your Self-Editing Process Here

Editorial road-mapping begins with a challenge of willpower and ends with a battle-plan for transforming your manuscript into the book you dreamed it could be. Let editor Kris Spisak give you that map!

6 Tips for Writing a Summer Romance Novel

6 Tips for Writing a Summer Romance Novel

Summer. Three whole months of bright sunsets and glittering water and endless possibility. Here are 6 tips from romance writer Rachael Lippincott for capturing a tiny bit of that magic in the pages of your next summer romance novel.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Running Empty

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Running Empty

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, consider what happens when resources begin to run low or out.

5 Tips for Creating a Fully Realized Historical Setting

5 Tips for Creating a Fully Realized Historical Setting

Research is more than just reading books and articles. Here, author Nekesa Afia gives her top 5 tips for writing a historical setting that will engage and wow your readers.

Don Bentley: On Being Picked to Write a Book in a Famous Series

Don Bentley: On Being Picked to Write a Book in a Famous Series

Thriller author Don Bentley discusses how he was selected to write Target Acquired, the latest Tom Clancy novel.

How to Write a Biography of a World Leader

How to Write a Biography of a World Leader

When writing a biography, you want to make sure that the story you tell is more than just a list of facts about the person's life. Biographer Supriya Vani shares her top tips for writing a successful biography.