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Theme with intention

Have you ever seen The Hurt Locker? It wasn't a big action shoot 'em up, there was no sweeping love story, and for a war movie it moved fairly slowly. But I think the reason it did so well is because it had a clear theme that every scene supported.

I’ve been struggling to understand concept and theme for a while. The words are thrown around a lot in craft books and workshops, and they’re fairly simple ideas, but for some reason I didn’t quite get it. Not really.

But somewhere between attending Suzanne Brockmann’s theme workshop at RWA Nationals last summer, watching The Hurt Locker, and reading Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!, I think I finally got it. So here’s my understanding of theme and concept. Feel free to join the discussion with your own.

Concept is what happens in your book. It’s the story. It’s what you boil down to that one-line pitch called a log line. For my story Blind Fury, it’s something like:

A risk-averse programmer must rely on a thrill-seeking mercenary for protection when her quest for the truth about her brother’s death makes her a target.

That’s what my story is about in a nutshell.

But what about the theme? To me, the theme is what you’re trying to say with your story. It’s the point of the story. Maybe even an argument for or against something. It could be the moral of the story. And you might have more than one.

By the end of the book, what message(s) do you want the reader to get?

With Blind Fury, I really wanted to get across that “war is addictive”. I didn't realize it was my theme when I started, but that’s exactly what I wanted to say. And then I saw The Hurt Locker, which slams you upside the head with exactly that same message (even going so far as to use a quote to that effect at the beginning, just in case you didn’t get it). That’s when I realized I'd had a theme all along.

My book has other themes too. It’s a love story after all, so there has to be a theme there. Probably every romance has the overarching theme that “love will overcome” or something similar. If not, we wouldn’t have the HEA we promise.

So, what’s the point in understanding theme?

In my post called Get Passionate, I urged you to find something you feel strongly about and write about it. What I was really saying—but didn’t realize it at the time—is find a theme. Your story might explore both sides of an issue—and probably should to be most effective—but likely in the end, you’re going to choose a side for your character, and by doing so, you’re making a statement about that issue.

You can choose something as provocative as abortion, or as simple as an exploration of the consequences of dishonesty.

Jodi Picoult has made a career out of theme. As have Robin Cook and the late Michael Crichton.

In Toxin, Robin Cook tackles the beef industry, and he pulls no punches. He goes in with a clear agenda and deftly sells you on his point of view, but you don’t feel attacked because you’re reading a great book that lets you come to your own conclusions.

An important point, because we don’t want children’s fables where the whole book is an exercise in morality. Readers want to be entertained. But along the way, you’re saying something, whether you intend to or not.

I’m just thinking it would be better if you knew what it was.

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    You’re right, Gwen! I wrote two similar themes in my books, long before I realized that’s what I was doing. I tend to have two constant themes–one internal and one external. The first–yes, you’re a product of what happens to you in life, but ultimately you’re the only one who can choose the correct path. Two, I tend to use paranormal to explore racial issues and prejudices (in the case of paranormal, it’s more species than race). I don’t think I was ever aware that I cared this much about both topics until they kept coming up in all of my books. Isn’t that crazy?

    • Reply

      Very cool, Callie. I know I’ve had themes in all of my books too, but I didn’t think of them that way before.

      I love both of your themes, and I think paranormal is a great place to handle issues of prejudice. DISTRICT 9 comes to mind.

      Thanks so much for stopping by!

    • Reply

      Callie, I love the idea of exploring difficult subjects with paranormal worlds. It takes the “blame” or “guilt” aspect out of play out and allows a freedom of thought, I think.

  2. Curtis


    And, a belated Happy New year to you.

    I stumbled into theme when an author whom I have forgotten was talking about his book that I don’t remember. He said, ” I wanted to explore adultery.”

    Bingo. Instead of a prose debate let story/ characters/ circumstances/ character decisions work the issue.

    It seemed to me that through story, the question could be seen/felt in more ambiguous terms which would increase tension and might even raise the blood pressure of the reader. Who knows might even change a mind.

    Thank you for this. And, thanks for the bibliography. I want to check out Toxin.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Curtis. I think you nailed it. Instead of a dry debate, we debate our issues in story form. And we may or may not come up with an answer, but I definitely think we increase tension when we have the two sides clash.

      Now, I need to be more deliberate about it with my own work. That’s the challenge.

  3. tolo


    I trust BOTH sides of the debate need passion and belief.

    ”I wanted to explore adultery.” Neutral, no preconceptions, the learning process sculpted and presented using the art of the author’s written word to explore, to gift ideas and understanding, invoke contemplation, and provoke thoughts that lead to emotional responses in the reader, maybe that even that passion.

    The author’s preconceptions may lead them in the wrong direction otherwise. Objectivity and research should lead to conclusions that the author determines for herself, hopefully with their hero/heroine on the right side of it, if, in fact, there IS a “right” side. It shouldn’t be “War is Addictive” but maybe “Is war addictive?” with the exploration of the concept and presenting possible answers to the question, the author’s ultimate goal within the context of their entertaining story.

    • Reply

      Tolo, I would agree that both sides of the issue need passion. And ideally, both sides would be fairly represented in a story, even if one side is “obviously” wrong. Because, really, there’s gray in everything.

      As for the statement rather than the question, I think it depends on your purpose. For exploration, a question makes more sense to me. But if I’m framing my theme as a statement, that changes how I write the story. I’m selling you an idea, rather than asking you to consider both sides and make your own decision.

      That is, I may still present both sides, but I’m going to do it in a way that leads you to the conclusion I want. Not by preaching, but by immersing you in the story and the consequences. “Toxin” is such an excellent example of it. Or just about anything by Crichton. He likes to take current science and show what could go wrong.

      Even the use of theme is up for debate! 😉 Thanks for chiming in. I can always count on you for thoughtful input.

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  5. Reply

    That is, I may still present both sides, but I’m going to do it in a way that leads you to the conclusion I want.

    Gwen, this reminds me of how we teach children to write persuasive paragraphs. We teach them to always include the opposite POV or argument because otherwise it looks like you haven’t considered it. If you include it – and shoot it down – it makes your argument more persuasive.

    Great topic!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Mary. Good point about persuasive papers.

      If both sides are presented, the reader can still make up his/her own mind. But as a writer, if I don’t pick a solution (whether the reader agrees with it or not), I think the reader will be disappointed.

      And, of course, in the end, I’m not tackling earth-shattering topics here. But maybe I should be. 😉

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