The Tie That Binds

How to Pinpoint a Story's Theme

I was furious. I slammed kitchen cabinets, whipped the dish towel, made weird gutteral noises in my throat to keep from screaming. 

What happened? My husband hadn’t done the dishes. 

Yeah. I know. It wasn’t about the dishes. It was ridiculous, in hindsight, because he does the dishes every night after dinner and this one time he had delayed. He probably would have done them, had I not walked in and started slamming things around. 

I was not angry at him at all, actually.  This sudden outburst of rage was a compilation of issues that I’d been collecting over the day. Seeing dirty dishes all over the sink and counter when I just wanted a drink of water, well, it was one too many things. 

I am old enough to realize quickly that I was throwing a tantrum like a toddler, stopping just short of falling to the floor and pounding my fists and feet. I walked out of the kitchen and out of the house into the cool evening air. I asked myself this question:

What is this really about? 

This is the same question we have to ask when we begin to work on a new writing project, whether it is a full-length memoir or small, like a blog post or an essay. 

What is this really about? 

The question is getting at the theme of the piece. The theme is the big idea or concept that all of us – as humans – can connect to. Trust. Betrayal. Friendship. Loss.  There are thousands of themes to choose from, which makes it all the more important that we identify what our story is really about.

Identifying the story’s theme early on offers us several advantages as we get to work.

1. It will help us identify which details to include and how to shape them. 

2. The project will be more focused and intentional. 

3. Because of this focused intention, the reader will likely feel the genuine connection that comes through shared human experiences. 

In writing about this temper tantrum, for example, I could have chosen one of several themes. Marriage. Household responsibilties. Anxiety. Anyone reading will have some sort of connection to any or all of these options, just by being human. But choosing one intentionally, ahead of time, allows me to decide how I want to shape the entire story. 

What is this really about? 

So how do we make the decision? The more complex the story, the more possibilities for themes. Who is to say which is the right slant, the best lens? 

There is no “right” theme to choose, but we must choose. Here are some steps you might try next time you begin a project. 

> List all of the possible themes embedded in this story, even in the most inconsequential ways. You may come up with three, or you may come up with twenty-seven. There is no right number. 

> Ask yourself, “What is this really about?” 

> If stuck, choose the two or three themes themes that you are leaning toward. Talk or journal through the details of the story that illustrate each. Where do the most impactful details point? 

> Once a theme is identified, keep it in the front of your mind as you draft the story. Shape your details through that lens. This requires an element of trust:  it will make a huge difference in the impact your writing will have on the reader. 

My volcano of emotion was about self-care, or rather lack of it. I was tired from not enough sleep, felt icky from eating poorly, had consumed a bit more wine than I should have, and had been beating myself up mentally from morning to night. If I were to write this as a stand-alone story, it would have been about my realization (over and over and over) that my own self-care impacts my interactions with my environment and those in it. 

Identifying the theme makes a difference, both for us as writers and for our readers. It is a simple decision that impacts the entire story for the better. 

Photo by from Pexels

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