Theme: What is It? And How Do We Develop One?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

In interview questions I'm often asked, "What is the message you'd like readers to take away from your book?" or "What is the theme of your book?"

Those kinds of questions are deep and aren't necessarily easy to answer.

What exactly is a theme? And how do we go about developing one?

In his book for screen writers, The Moral Premise, Stanley D. Williams gives an intense, very detailed look at message vs. theme vs. moral premise. He boils it down into an almost scientific distinction. And while I appreciate the breakdown, it's a little confusing and I'm not sure that we as writers need to get bogged down with trying to decipher between all the terms.

Whether we call it message, theme, or moral premise, the key is coming up with a universal truth that touches the heart of readers. Williams says, "Audiences come to stories looking for answers or hints about life's meaning. And when stories give them new insights, they're given fresh hope for a better future."

He defines this concept as "the dramatic heart" or the "practical lesson" of a story.

Ultimately a theme will be an over-arching and controlling idea that is woven throughout the story that teaches, inspires, or otherwise draws in a reader so that they can relate to the characters.

Perhaps our readers won't always be able to directly point out what the theme of the book is, but it will resonate with them and connect them to the story on a deeper level. In fact, a good storyteller should work at weaving in the theme so that readers don't see it. They just feel it.

What a theme is NOT:

–It is NOT preaching at our readers.

–It is NOT giving a political tirade.

–It is NOT using a story as our soap box.

–It is NOT badgering our readers into believing something.

Instead a theme is the whisper of a powerful and transcending truth that echoes deeply within the human soul. It's the aura and beauty that readers can cling to and remember long after they close the pages.

Themes will vary, but the more widely appealing we can make our themes, the broader audience we'll reach. Of course there will be writers who may hone in on narrower themes that will appeal to a niche audience. And that's oaky too. But writers need to recognize that the more universal the theme, the more readers will be able to relate.

So what are some common themes? Here are a few:

–Perseverance leads to growth.

–True love is difficult to vanquish.

–Letting go of bitterness and learning to forgive is freeing.

–Truthfulness leads to hope and life.

–Humility is the handmaiden of honor.

Obviously there are many, many more universal themes. Once we know the main theme of our book, then we're in a position to use that as a measuring stick that keeps our story moving forward with intentionality:

–Theme can be used in both the external and internal plot. Whatever the character is dealing with internally as a result of the theme can also show up in the external plot.

For example in A Noble Groom my hero is in the habit of running away from problems. He has to learn that running away leads to cowardice, but staying and fighting develops courage. He does this on two levels. Externally he physically turns himself around and races into the heart of a ferocious wild fire to fight to save the family he's come to love. And internally he has to stop running from his fear of marriage. The theme shows up both externally and internally.

–Theme can be used in symbols throughout our story. We can place strategic items within the lives of our characters that mirror the theme.

For example, in The Doctor's Lady my heroine has a cameo pin. The pin represents her ties to her family and all that's important to her. Throughout the book she's learning that letting go of prejudices leads to greater opportunities to love. She has to let go of her past expectations and the life she once knew. At the end of the book she fulfills the theme symbolically by giving her cameo pin to an Indian woman.

Besides plot and symbols, theme can show up in lots of other places throughout our books. We can weave it into character growth, setting, dialogue, backstory, etc. The trick is to do so invisibly so that reader doesn't know we're doing it. But in the end, the story resonates within them because the truth touches them deeply.

How much thought do you put into developing the themes of your books? Do you think it's necessary for a book to have a theme? Why or why not?


  1. This is really helpful, thanks Jody.

    I'm still trying to define my theme- I know what it is, but when I try to put it into one sentence it eludes me. That tells me I've not done enough thinking about it yet, but it's important I get it right because the characters' motivations and flaws will all stem from the theme.
    I'd be interested to know if you approached your books in the same way -letting the theme define the characters- or if your characters drove the theme.

    1. I spend time before I start writing developing a theme. I try to tie that theme into my character's arcs. But I also try to weave the theme into the external plot as well. As I'm writing, I give the theme room to grow and develop and morph into something bigger than I could have imagined during the plotting phase. As I get to know my characters, as the characters really come to life, sometimes I have to tweak my theme a bit. But usually I have that kernel of theme down on paper before I start. Hope that makes sense!

    2. Perfect sense. Thanks again, Jody. :)

  2. I put a lot of thought into the themes of my books long before I ever start writing them. Some authors put a lot into their plot and synopsis and the like. I don't. I focus on the theme and have a good understanding of the beginning and ending of the story. (The middle is usually comprised of vague ideas to escalate the conflict, but really, how can a person know the best way to challenge the characters before writing any scenes wherein the H/H interact with each other or the villain or the annoying family or whatever?)

    For me, knowing WHERE a story is heading and WHY it's heading there is the absolute top priority when I start a new novel. This ends up being the theme and a concrete way the theme is tested at the end of the novel. The rest of the story I leave open so that it can breathe and grow and become a well-rounded, naturally flowing novel.

    Yes, I've read Williams's Moral Premise. The beginning is rather scientific. But I go through the exercises at the end of that book before I start a new novel. The other book I refer too when inventing a framework for my novels is Writing the Breakout Novel and it's Workbook. I don't know what I would do without the exercises in those books. (Probably have really boring stories that no one wanted to read!)

    1. Sounds like you have a system that really works well for you, Naomi! I like to use the chart at the back of Moral Premise as a starting place for thinking about the theme of my book too (especially the list of vices and virtues). I don't necessarily get as detailed as he does with the whole development (partly because I have my own chart that I fill in for my character arcs.) But overall, I think William's offers some good food for thought.

    2. Right, yes. I've downloaded your character sheets and tried using them before (along with character sheets from different places), but truly those character sheets don't do me a lick of good. Oh, I can fill them out just fine, but everything changes. If I were to show you the character sheets (yours) that I'd filled out for my next book, and then you were to read the book, you'd probably laugh. I'm pretty sure the only thing that stayed consistent was the characters names. :-)

      But everyone writes novels differently. I'm a global thinker, global learner kind of person. So for me, having an overarching conflict and theme is what I use to start my novels and keep them (mostly) on track.

      But I should have clarified. I don't do the last couple exercises in the Moral Premise. I stop when it gets to listing the specific dramatic beats. I really don't do well breaking down my stories and thinking of them in terms of turning points and acts and climaxes and the like. Oh goodness! Gives me chills just listing all those nauseating plot points. "Just develop a good story and write it in such a way that readers can't put it down." That's my philosophy. :-) My brain isn't mechanical enough to break the story up any more than that.

  3. "Instead a theme is the whisper of a powerful and transcending truth that echoes deeply within the human soul."

    Such a beautiful way of wording what a theme is. The theme of a story is always something I tend to forget about and just write, hoping it will be evident. This post has really made me consider the fact that I need to have more thought of my themes beforehand and then edit accordingly to make it a prominent feature.

    Thanks for the advice.

  4. I usually find that theme develops organically from my MC's character, if that makes sense. The more I delve into my MC's head, the more I realize what is REALLY bothering her/him and what makes them tick. I'm a rough-plotter, but mostly a pantser, and somehow this works for me. I find at the end of the books I have multiple thematic layers I wasn't even shooting for in the beginning. One thing I LOVE is when you can land on that perfect title that subtly reinforces the theme. I love how in the classics, the theme is generally woven in but rarely spelled out. That's definitely what I shoot for.

  5. I haven't really thought of a theme for my story yet, but it definitely makes sense. And I agree with the part about not preaching to your audience; I once read a book where it felt like the author was preaching to me through her main characters and trying to get me to adopt her platform. It turned me off so much that I couldn't even finish the book, and I usually finish most books.

  6. Defining the theme of my stories isn't something I've focused intentionally on yet, but somehow it's there anyway. It's in the back of my mind what the general moral of the story is as I'm writing. That keeps me in line with the point I'm trying to bring across. As I'm typing up my tale, sometimes the characters or incidents or other things show me that my grand idea wasn't complete or needed to go a different direction entirely. That's generally when I start diving deeper into what the theme is and how it affects everything.

    Thanks for the informative post, Jody! I really enjoyed your take on theme. It got me thinking about the theme of my currect project.

    Quick question: If you've got a completed manuscript and want to make sure your theme carried through the story well without being too noticed (as in the examples you gave), what would you look for during a read-through? Anything in particular? Thanks!



    1. Andrea, I tend to use the side balloons to block in and mark themes, character arcs, spiritual issues, etc. That way I can see at a quick glance where I have woven in those issues and if I'm repeating myself too often. Repetition or lack of discussion of those issues are also things a good editor can pick up on. My editors often let me know if I need more or less during my rewrites.

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  8. You are absolutely right, Jody. Writing for publication alone isn't enough. I do love writing and I don't think I could stop, even if I wanted to. Writing is an outlet for me as well. Thank-you for taking the time to remind me to keep that in perspective. the venus factor weight loss

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