Finishing your First Draft - Day Eight

Doug Landsborough
April 20, 2023


I’m just gonna come out and say it: I’m proud of you.

You’ve made it through a week of this course and haven’t sworn at me yet (at least not loud enough for me to hear). Seriously, you’ve taken more steps to better your writing craft than most people who want to be an author, so take a moment to congratulate yourself.

Okay, sappy stuff is over. Today, we’re talking about theme.

So many people sleep on theme. They think that characters and plot can make a bestseller. Sorry, but including themes in your story is important.

So what is a theme? A theme is the message your story is about. While your plot is the story itself, your plot and characters come together to share the message you want the reader to take away. It is the central idea behind your story. 

Theme is not the plot. Theme is not the characters. Theme is the message that both of those send. Because of that, your theme is going to rely heavily on both of those other elements.

If you don’t think themes are important, stop right there. While some believe that themes are only for “high-brow” stories or English teachers, that’s not the truth. A story without a theme is hollow. It’s a shell of what it could actually be.

It’s lame!

Themes make your story worth reading. They add an extra layer of depth to your work in a way that is subtle yet effective. So what does a theme look like?

Themes are messages like:

  • Sticking to your morals will always pay off in the end.
  • Sticking to your morals can be damaging to you and your loved ones.
  • Friendship is the key to happiness.
  • Friendship can be toxic and ruin your life.
  • People are innately good.
  • People are innately evil.

Those contrasting choices were intentional to show you how varied themes can be (literally opposites of each other). The thing is, you will never see a theme explicitly stated in a book.

That’s because themes are subtle. You weave them into character arcs and subplots, show them through repeated symbols or items, and you can even have multiple themes to enhance one another.

With all that said, how do we make an awesome theme?

My biggest piece of advice is to not dwell on your theme too much at first. If you go into your story with the intent of sharing a theme, you can come off as heavy-handed or, worse, just bashing your reader over the head with your message. This is less of a worry for literary fiction than it is in genre fiction, but remember that themes are subtle.

That’s why you should think of a few theme topics before you write and let them evolve as your story unfolds. This way you can think about ways to sprinkle in your topic and your theme emerges organically and, I’ll say it again, subtly.

Theme topics are just the high-level idea that you refine into a theme. From Chapter Seven in Let’s Write a Book, here are some examples of theme topics:

  • Good vs. evil
  • Happiness
  • Grief
  • Mental health
  • Belonging
  • Racism
  • Family/friends
  • Art
  • Love

Now it’s your turn. 

Make a new Note in your Book Roadmap folder titled Themes. It’s time to think about the book you’re writing and what messages you want to share. Complete the not-homework in Chapter Seven to get started on making some tantalizing themes. 

Copy and paste the three exercises below into your new Note, then jot down your answers. Remember, what you write here isn’t set in stone; we’re just trying to get the gears turning for you to develop themes as you write.

  1. Identify two to five possible theme topics you might want to explore in your story. If you’re feeling adventurous, expand those topics into full-fledged themes (just remember that these aren’t set in stone).
  2. How will your theme topics or themes work with the arcs of your main characters? How will those characters change because of the theme? Jot your answers down.
  3. What recurring symbols will you include that relate to your themes? Make a list of potential items.

It should look something like this:

I have a real treat for you in tomorrow’s lesson, so stay tuned!

Doug from Dabble

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.