Theme Formation

Universal Truth

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

Global Story Elements

  • 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.
Theme Formation
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Characters, Plot, and Theme Relationships

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

External Theme – Shown through Plot Action

The external (aka “outer,” “major,” or “story”) theme gives meaning to the overall narrative—it relates to what your book is about. For example, you can portray a theme from different viewpoints:

  • Positive Theme: Justice prevails when the protagonist overpowers or outwits the antagonist.
  • Negative Theme: Tyranny reigns when the antagonist outwits the protagonist or world system.

Internal Theme – Shown through Character Conflict

The internal (aka “inner,” “minor,” or “character”) theme gives insight into the protagonist’s life, amplifying conflicts, experiences, discoveries, emotions, and growth. For example:

  • Positive Theme: Good triumphs when the protagonist sacrifices worldly values in favor of the needs of others.
  • Negative Theme: Evil reigns when the protagonist pursues selfish needs ahead of the needs of others.

Subtle Versus Explicit Themes

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

  • Express the inner theme through the protagonist’s feelings and related actions.
  • Convey the outer theme through supporting cast members and events.
  • Highlight changes in characters that take place over the course of the story.

Plot and Characters Convey Theme

Think of plot as setting up events that force characters to deal with internal and external conflicts. Authors use those conflicts to reveal external and internal themes.

Methods of Choosing a theme

The processes used to form themes vary by author. For example:

  • Preconceived Theme: You can come to the writing desk prepared to expand on a preconceived theme. This theme 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 outer and inner 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!