Theme Formation

Universal Truth

Theme formation conveys a universal truth, binding essential elements of your story, and providing readers with insights into how humans behave and the world works.

A symbiotic relationship exists between characters, plot, theme, and structure.

  • Characters are who experience the story.
  • Plot is what happens within the story.
  • Theme is why the story matters.
  • Structure is how the story is told.

Whether you prefer to write a story based on characters, plot, or theme, you can use any of the three to flesh out the other two.

Multiple Paths to Identifying Story Themes

Theme Elements

➨External Theme

The external theme gives meaning to the overarching narrative relating to what your book is about. For example, a murder mystery is about bringing the killer to justice.

➨Internal Theme

The internal theme gives insight into the protagonist’s life, amplifying conflicts, experiences, discoveries, and emotions, including the change required for the lead character to solve the story problem. For example, the sleuth in a cozy mystery solves the murder when she puts the needs of the community ahead of her personal needs.

➨Philosophical Theme

The philosophical theme taps into the audience’s collective knowledge of a universal truth, and typically provides the lead character with the motivation to learn the internal theme’s life lesson. For example, the cozy mystery sleuth applies the internal theme only after a friend (foil character) reflects how compromised values hindered protagonist from identifying the killer.

Subtle Versus Explicit Themes

In commercial fiction, authors avoid on-the-nose themes by using subtle suggestions through various techniques. For example:

  • Convey the external theme through supporting cast members and events.
  • Express the internal theme through the protagonist’s feelings and actions.
  • Remind readers of the philosophical theme through changes that take place over the course of the story.

Plot and Characters Convey Theme

Plot sets up events that force characters to deal with internal and external conflicts. Authors use those conflicts to reveal external, internal, and philosophical themes.

Methods of Theme Formation

The methods used to choose themes vary by author. For example:

  • Preconceived Theme: You can come to the writing desk prepared to expand on a preconceived theme. This preconception drives plot design and character development.
  • Evolving Theme: It’s okay for a writer to begin with a preconceived theme, but as the characters grow, remain open to changing your initial concepts.
  • Discovered Theme: If at the outset of a project, or deep into the effort, you haven’t yet decided on the theme, no worries. Complete your first draft and then read through to discover your theme.

Use technology to help you apply inner and outer themes to your story. For example, Scrivener enables you to create a detailed outline of your story, helping you to identify scenes where conflicts emphasize theme.

Click here to see a K. M. Weiland’s book on theme formation, and scan the other titles for related topics, such as character development and plot and structure.

As you read best sellers in your chosen genre, look for the external, internal, and philosophical themes. You’ll notice that many themes repeat.

Best-selling authors take a fresh approach to revealing universal truths through their plots and characters. And you can, too!