I learned about theme in story several years ago. Whether you’re a pantser, plotter, or a hybrid of both, your stories have a theme. Theme is not to be confused with plot. While plot is what drives the story by the characters’ actions and reactions, theme is a unifying or dominant idea or motif that is the thread that runs through your work.
In my case, I’d finished two books when I read a great article by Julie Rowe, “What’s Your Core Story,” in which she wrote that usually, your core story or theme will be the same. Whether you write about a nun or a high school dropout, the theme would be the same. It’s the story you’re compelled to write no matter how you dress it up with genre, setting, or plot.
Julie listed some of the basic categories.
• Acceptance: the characters go on a journey to find their place in the world. The journey can be a physical, emotional, or spiritual one. Characters, at the end of an acceptance story, find their place in the world and are accepted for who they are.
• Crusade: the characters go in search of something they think will make them happy. The outcome must be that they find what they need, even if it’s been sitting next to them the entire time.
• Healing (wounded hero/heroine): the characters begin wounded and must allow themselves to heal. This requires trust. When that trust is returned, the wound heals and the character emerges as a new whole person at the end.
• Protector: the characters assume responsibility for someone or something else (sometimes it’s the character themselves). During the story’s resolution the character learns to accept this responsibility and/or learns to set free those that no longer need protection.
• Redemption (righting past wrongs): the character must right a past wrong. During the resolution, forgiveness is granted and they move forward in their life.
• Rescue: the characters must rescue someone from danger. During the resolution, the character succeeds in saving the person or thing they seek to rescue and probably themselves as well.
• Second Chance: the characters must allow themselves the opportunity to pursue the one thing they wish they had pursued years ago. As the story is resolved, the character experiences closure, even if it means making the same mistakes, but knowing they’ve done their best.
• Transformation (change): the characters must change, grow, and sometimes leave their old life behind to achieve their goal. In the resolution, the character successfully transforms himself and emerges as a new, mature, content person.
I went back to my two stories and found that my theme was the same in both, although they were in different settings with different characters and plots. I write about Transformation. My character(s) go through profound changes by the end of the story. I had no idea. The books I’ve written since share this theme.
Once I understood my theme, it made it easier for me to know how my character was going to react and why s/he reacted in a particular way. It’s their “why,” what makes them tick.
Of course, this won’t be the case for everyone. And you might have a marriage of more than one theme. Certainly, the categories above don’t cover all themes, so you might not find your theme in those listed here.
Look through your stories and see if you are compelled to write the same theme in each book.
Do you have a recurring theme? What is it?