10 Tips for Choosing the Perfect Theme for Your Story: Expert Tips

In storytelling, a theme is not merely an element of the narrative; it is its soul. Distinct from the plot, the theme imparts the underlying message, offering insights into why events unfold as they do, and what they mean on a larger scale.

It’s a reflection on the myriad aspects of the human experience, crafted through the interplay of characters, settings, and events. The theme transcends mere storytelling to resonate with readers, providing depth and layers of meaning that transform a simple tale into a memorable journey.

Acting as a narrative compass, it guides the author in maintaining coherence throughout the story, ensuring that each element aligns with the overarching message and contributes to a harmonious whole.

Key Takeaways

  • Core Essence: The theme is the story’s soul, transforming simple tales into memorable journeys by adding depth and insight into the human experience.
  • Intention and Relevance: Determine your motivation and central message before writing to ensure the theme is focused and relevant.
  • Genre Compatibility: Align your theme with genre conventions, avoiding clichés while embracing themes that fit your narrative’s genre.
  • Structural Integration: Structure your story to highlight the theme, using motifs and symbols to deepen its resonance throughout the narrative.
  • Character and Theme Interaction: Develop characters that embody the theme, showing their growth or challenges that reflect thematic elements.
  • Subtlety and Refinement: Present the theme subtly, allowing readers to infer it through the narrative, and refine it continuously to ensure coherence and engagement.

1. Contemplating Your Intentions

story writing inspo

Before you start writing your story, you need to have a clear idea of why you are writing it and what you want to say. This will help you narrow down your theme and make it more focused and relevant.

Clarify your storytelling motivations

Ask yourself: What inspired you to write this story? What are you passionate about?

What are you hoping to achieve or communicate with your story? Your answers to these questions will reveal your motivations and interests, which can guide you to your theme.

For example, if you are writing a story about a dystopian society, you might be motivated by your concern for the future, your curiosity about human nature, or your desire to challenge the status quo.

Pinpoint the central message to be imparted

Once you have identified your motivations, you need to translate them into a central message or a thematic statement. This is a concise and clear sentence that summarizes the main point or lesson of your story.

It should not be too vague or too specific but rather capture the essence of your theme. For example, if your story is about a dystopian society, your central message might be: “Freedom is worth fighting for” or “Power corrupts, but hope prevails”.

2. Analyzing Your Genre

Your genre is the category or type of story that you are writing, such as romance, fantasy, thriller, or historical fiction. It can influence your theme, as different genres have different expectations, conventions, and common themes.

Identify prevailing themes within the genre

Research and read other stories in your genre and take note of the themes that they explore. Also, look for lists of common themes in your genre online or in books about writing.

This will help you get a sense of what themes are popular, relevant, and appropriate for your genre. For example, some common themes in fantasy are: good vs. evil, heroism, destiny, magic, loyalty, and sacrifice.

Match your theme to genre conventions

Once you have a list of potential themes for your genre, you need to match your theme to the genre conventions. These are the rules, expectations, and elements that define your genre and make it recognizable to your readers.

You need to make sure that your theme fits well with your genre and does not contradict or clash with it. For example, if you are writing a fantasy story, your theme should not be too realistic or mundane but rather reflect the fantastical and imaginative nature of your genre.

Avoid themes that are too clichéd or overused in your genre unless you can put a fresh or original spin on them.

3. Structuring Your Outline

Structuring Your Outline

The outline acts as your story’s map or blueprint, guiding you through its main events, scenes, and plot points. It serves as a tool to structure your narrative while also reinforcing and strengthening its underlying theme.

Arrange the plot to accentuate the theme

Plot is the sequence of events that make up your story, from the beginning to the end. It should not only be interesting and logical but also serve your theme.

Arrange your plot in a way that showcases, develops, and reinforces your theme throughout your story. For example, if your theme is “freedom is worth fighting for”, your plot should include scenes that show the oppression and injustice of the dystopian society, the resistance and rebellion of the protagonists, and the consequences and rewards of their actions.

4. Incorporating Motifs

A motif is a recurring element, symbol, image, or idea that relates to your theme and emphasizes its significance. Motifs can help you create connections, contrasts, and patterns in your story that highlight your theme.

Employ consistent symbols to reinforce the theme

A symbol is something that represents or stands for something else, usually an abstract concept or idea. Symbols can be objects, characters, settings, colors, sounds, or anything else that has a deeper meaning or significance.

Use symbols to reinforce your theme by making them appear repeatedly and consistently in your story. For example, if your theme is “power corrupts, but hope prevails”, you might use symbols such as a crown, a sword, a bird, or a flower to represent power, corruption, hope, and resilience.

5. Diversifying Themes

A theme is not a fixed or rigid concept, but rather a flexible and dynamic one. Diversify your theme by exploring different aspects, perspectives, and implications of it in your story.

Integrate a primary theme with subordinate themes

A primary theme is the main or dominant theme of your story, while subordinate themes are the secondary or minor themes that support or contrast with the primary theme. You can integrate a primary theme with subordinate themes by making them relate to each other and the overall message of your story.

For example, if your primary theme is “freedom is worth fighting for”, some subordinate themes might be love, betrayal, courage, sacrifice, and identity.

6. Characterization and Theme

character narrative

The characters are the people who populate your story and drive the action. They can also help you convey your theme, as they embody, express, or challenge it through their personalities, actions, and interactions.

Manifest the theme through character narratives

A character narrative is the story arc or development of a character, from their introduction to their resolution. A character narrative can manifest your theme by showing how a character relates to, learns from, or changes because of the theme.

For example, if your theme is “freedom is worth fighting for”, your character narrative might show how a character goes from being passive and obedient to being active and rebellious, or how a character sacrifices their freedom for the greater good.

7. Gaining Perspective

Gain perspective on your theme

Writing a theme is not a one-time or linear process, but rather a cyclical and iterative one. Gain perspective on your theme by revisiting, revising, and refining it throughout your writing process.

This will help you make your theme more clear, consistent, and compelling.

Step back to better perceive the thematic elements

Sometimes, you might be too close or too attached to your theme, which can make you lose sight of the bigger picture or the finer details. Step back and distance yourself from your theme so that you can better perceive the thematic elements in your story and how they work together.

You can do this by taking a break from writing, getting feedback from others, reading your story aloud, or using tools such as mind maps, charts, or diagrams to visualize your theme and its components.

8. The Art of Subtlety

Art of Subtlety

One of the key skills of writing a theme is to be subtle and not forceful. You don’t want to hit your readers over the head with your theme or make it too obvious or preachy.

Instead, you want to enable the audience to deduce the theme from the story and appreciate its nuances and implications.

Enable the audience to deduce the theme

To do this, you need to show, not tell, your theme. This means using the elements of storytelling, such as plot, character, setting, dialogue, and action, to illustrate your theme, rather than stating it explicitly.

For example, instead of saying “The theme of this story is that love is stronger than hate”, you can show how the characters overcome their hatred and find love through their actions and words.

Weave in motifs progressively

Another way to be subtle is to weave in motifs progressively throughout your story. Motifs are recurring elements, symbols, images, or ideas that relate to your theme and emphasize its significance.

They can help you create connections, contrasts, and patterns in your story that highlight your theme.

9. Infusing Your Voice

Infusing Your Voice

Another aspect of refining your theme is to infuse your voice into it. Your voice is your unique style and personality as a writer, and it reflects your perspective and attitude towards your theme.

By infusing your voice, you can make your theme more original, authentic, and engaging.

Imbue the theme with your insights

To infuse your voice, you need to imbue the theme with your insights. This means drawing from your own experiences, opinions, values, and emotions, and expressing them through your theme.

Use your voice to challenge, question, or explore different aspects of your theme, and to invite your readers to do the same. For example, if your theme is “freedom is worth fighting for”, you can use your voice to share your struggles or achievements related to freedom, examine the costs and benefits of fighting for freedom, or inspire your readers to take action for their freedom.

10. Avoiding Common Pitfalls

Refine your theme carefully to sidestep pitfalls such as being too vague, too specific, too moralistic, or too clichéd.

  • Avoid Vagueness: A vague theme, broad or abstract, can blur your story’s focus and confuse readers. Sharpen your theme by brainstorming, outlining, and crafting a precise thesis statement.
  • Avoid Over-Specificity: A narrowly defined theme can strip your story of depth and alienate readers. Broaden your theme to encompass universal relevance through analysis, synthesis, and generalization.
  • Avoid Moralism: A preachy theme can reduce your story’s nuance and alienate readers. Strive for balance by showcasing different perspectives and employing motifs and a nuanced narrative voice.
  • Avoid Clichés: A clichéd theme, overly familiar and uninspired, dulls your story’s impact. Revitalize your theme by questioning and exploring new angles, and infusing it with a unique voice.


How can a writer ensure their theme is not too abstract for readers to grasp?

To ensure a theme isn’t too abstract, a writer should integrate concrete examples and scenarios within the narrative that reflect the theme. Using characters’ actions and dialogues to demonstrate thematic concepts helps make abstract ideas relatable and understandable to readers.

What strategies can writers use to discover new themes for their stories?

Writers can explore new themes by drawing from personal experiences, current events, historical incidents, and philosophical questions. Engaging with diverse sources of inspiration, such as literature, art, and cinema from various cultures, can also spark ideas for fresh and compelling themes.

How can authors balance multiple themes in a single story without overwhelming the reader?

Authors can balance multiple themes by intertwining them through the plot and character development, ensuring each theme complements rather than competes with the others. Focusing on a primary theme while weaving secondary themes subtly throughout the narrative helps maintain clarity and cohesion.

Can a theme evolve during the writing process, and how should writers handle it?

Yes, a theme can evolve as the story develops. Writers should remain open to this evolution, allowing the narrative to guide the theme’s progression. Regularly revisiting and reflecting on the theme’s relevance and alignment with the story helps manage its evolution effectively.

What role do settings play in reinforcing the theme of a story?

Settings can significantly reinforce a story’s theme by providing a backdrop that reflects or contrasts with the thematic elements. For example, a dystopian setting can amplify themes of freedom versus oppression, while a natural setting might enhance themes related to growth or survival.

How can writers use dialogue to subtly introduce and reinforce the theme?

Writers can use dialogue to introduce and reinforce the theme by having characters express related beliefs, questions, and revelations. Through conversations, debates, and monologues, characters can explore the theme’s complexities, offering insights and perspectives that underline the story’s central message.

Final Words

In storytelling, the theme is the core that elevates a narrative beyond mere events to impart deep insights and universal truths, reflecting on the human experience. It goes beyond the plot to add depth and resonance, transforming stories into unforgettable journeys.

A clear intention and genre analysis shape the theme, ensuring it aligns with narrative elements and genre norms for coherence and relevance. Employing motifs, diverse thematic aspects, and character development enriches the narrative, while subtlety in theme presentation and the author’s unique voice add nuance.

Effective theme refinement requires avoiding vagueness, moral preaching, and clichés, striking a balance between specificity and universality. Thus, the theme acts as the narrative’s soul, deeply engaging readers and offering a rich exploration of life’s complexities.