And your point is…?

If you fly into the sun…

Theme is the main idea behind a story/poem/song. It is often a universal idea or philosophy. Think of Aesop’s Fables (The Tortoise and the Hare, The Boy Who Cried Wolf). On one level the stories are simple tales that amuse children but they also carry a second, deeper message – a universal truth. This moral is the theme. Such themes are often relevant to everyone, everywhere, in every language, in every culture.

For your writing to be considered ‘art’ you ought to have a theme. Therefore, as well as writing a story whereby Joe wants Natalie, Joe gets Natalie, Joe loses Natalie – you include an underlying message like: “jealousy kills love’.

As you write your story, don’t lose sight of your theme. Some writers use the theme as their title (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice). Though this is not common, nor encouraged, using your theme as a provisional title on your Work In Progress might keep you focused on your message as you are writing. It is also possible that your theme  may become a tagline or catchphrase associated with your story, like “Greed is good” for Wallstreet (albeit in contrary form).

Examples: your theme could be a comment on the role that luck plays in a person’s life, or your belief that all beings are interconnected. Moralistic writers might warn against the seven deadly sins: wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. Alternatively, a writer may want to say such indulgences make the world go around. Whatever your theme is, it is your “message” or “philosophy” and ought to be consistently evident in your story.

Once you have found your theme, a way of reminding the reader of its centrality to your story is to place symbolic “motifs” throughout your work. That is to say, if your theme is jealousy, and a widely known symbol of jealousy is “green eyes” – you could give your character green eyes and/or have him own a green eyed statue that unnerves him. You might also have a lot of “green” in your story. Thus, green becomes your story’s “motif” and will help to create a sense of unity in the piece.

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About suehealy

Award-winning Irish writer/playwright Sue Healy’s work has been supported and developed by Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, the Peggy Ramsay Foundation and Arts Council England. January 2018 sees her play Imaginationship run for three weeks at the Finborough Theatre. Previous productions include Cow (Etcetera Theatre, 2017) and Brazen (King’s Head Theatre, 2016), funded by Arts Council England. Sue’s work has also been performed at the Finborough, Arcola, Hackney Attic and Sterts theatres, and at festivals including the Claremorris Fringe (New Writing Award winner), the Brighton (Sussex Playwrights’ Award winner), the UEA Contemporary European Drama Festival, Norwich. Her work will also be showcased at the Criterion theatre on Dec. 4th. Radio work includes nine plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (Opening Lines winner), WLRfm and KCLR96fm. She has been a finalist for BBC Scriptroom 12, Eamon Keane Playwriting Prize, Nick Darke Award and the Old Vic 12 New Voices. Sue's prose has won the the Molly Keane Award, HISSAC Prize, Escalator Award and has been published widely. Sue has been writer-in-residence on Inis Oírr, Aran Islands, and at the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island. She has also benefitted from juried artist residencies at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, and at Ginestrelle, Assisi in Italy. Sue is a UEA Creative Writing MA alumna. She spent eleven years in Budapest, editing Hungary A.M. She is currently London-based, completing a Ph.D. on the Royal Court Theatre. Sue is an Associate Lecturer in Playwriting at the Universities of Lincoln and Portsmouth, and tutors Creative Writing at City Lit. She is Literary Manager at the Finborough Theatre. View all posts by suehealy

19 responses to “And your point is…?

  • ottabelle

    Oops, the mouse got away from me. Anyway, on with my comment. Not trying to be contrary, but why does writing always have to be ‘art’? Why can’t a story just be a story? I like the idea of having a central theme, but sometimes I think it’s ok to not have everything be about the idea and just let the character have fun with their world and solve their conflict.

    Or is that a theme in itself? I’m not sure.

    • suehealy

      There are certainly stories out there that aim to purely entertain, that only work on a superficial level (although, you can probably read something into ANYTHING if you try hard enough). Rather like a soap opera, the point of these stories is to keep the reader reading and give them a few thrills along the way. And if that is all you want to do, then, by all means go for it… It won’t bring us any closer to understanding humanity, or existance, or ever be called literature or art – but ya might make someone smile or entertain them for a couple of hours… so go for it.

      • ottabelle

        Sorry, I hope you didn’t think I was being ornery. I agree that something can be read into anything. Maybe what I was trying to say was instead of aiming for some sort of moral lesson, let your characters tell a story and through their actions let your message come through? Not stab your reader in the face with your message, unless you feel you have to. Some things need to have a message stab you in the face every now and again. Hmm, I don’t know what I meant anymore. I won’t lie and say my novel doesn’t have an underlying, stitching-together message!

        • suehealy

          Not at all, I thought you we’re making a good point and wanted to pick up on it. If you ever find yourself ‘stabbing your reader int he face’ with your message, ever, you need to bin the story. Your point should not be shouty or preachy, just subtle and consistently ‘there’.

        • ottabelle

          Ahh sorry. 🙂 Good point.

  • Alternativepoet

    Very informative Sue, thanks for sharing… 😊

  • SusanWritesPrecise

    Hi Sue,
    Point well taken :-). Thanks for the reminder. I do love Franz Kafka’s work though, and try to imitate his style. What do you make of Kafka?

    Thanks!

  • tmso

    Ah, this comes at a perfect time for me. I was just trying to figure out my book cover “tag line” or four-word summary, and couldn’t think of anything. But, of course, the theme! You’d think it would have been obvious as each of my books is based on one of the seven deadly sins.

    Thanks for the post!

  • Hermionejh

    I wish I had more time to read, read, read! I’m failing NaNoWriMo on my first attempt, but I’ve given myself an extension to Jan.1st, and honestly, I’m not shooting for a great novel (or probably even a good one), but it’s more about finishing a work I’ve started! Ugh! I appreciate your tips and encouragement through your blog, and look forward to more! Cheers.
    Jerri

  • dorhora

    Excellent tips! Interesting that you pointed out how the classics are mostly titled by theme and often the title character (Bronte)…not original in practice, yet all of those tales are unforgettable!

  • GJ Scobie

    Loved this posting. I’m about to read back through what is probably my final draft and this could not have come at a better time as a reminder. It is so easy to edit out and lose references to your central theme so thank you for this timely reminder. I have quickly blogged about this as I hadn’t talked about my theme so again thank you 🙂

  • Chaoticwritting

    Wow!!! Thanks!!! Note taken.

  • deskquixote

    Great post. I usually have the issue of finding a theme for my story. It feels difficult to figure out motivations without one. I guess a lot of themes just seem overdone, but that is the nature of the beast. Good ideas are copied, bad ideas are forgotten.

  • CLARE SCOTT

    Thanks Sue, always enjoy your writing advice, always clear and concise and usefull too! 🙂

  • nancyrae4

    Thanks for reminding me about theme. My wip has a great theme, but as I get caught up on the action I need to sit back and ask myself if the characters are expressing the theme in their behavior.

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