Why You Need a Theme – And How It Can Kill Your Writing

This was the last thing Swen said to me, before he jumped off the cliff: “I’m going to do something that you will never forget. Witness me.”

As he fell upon the war band, I watched as a car, covered in spikes, collided with his body. I watched as the explosives fell from his hand, undetonated, and his body impaled on the car’s spear-covered hood.

But Swen died with a smile on his silver-stained lips. And he did not die in vain.

Weeks passed, the brothers were killed, and the fortress fell, but still, I could not rid myself of Swen’s dying words. It was only after the water began to run again, when the sanded bluffs turned from red to green did I fully realize Swen’s message.

It came to me when I wrote. I needed to record the events, the bloodletting, the fall of the Immortan. I knew when I began, only two things:

  • What I had seen
  • What I wanted others to know

Swen had taught me many things, in our last days together, when he freed me from my shackles. He taught me how to survive, he taught me how to be ruthless. But of all the skills Swen gave me, the only thing that mattered was his memory.

Or, more specifically, it was the importance of memory. The importance of theme.

As I spread dried, old seeds amid the bullet-strewn sands, I thought about the meaning of Swen’s life. He was destined to be forgotten (you will forget him too, once you have finished reading this), but from his death I learned a great wisdom.

Every book, every essay, every good story needs a theme. Even characters can be built on themes. But how do you come up with a theme?

It’s easy, especially when you know what you want your audience to learn. Think of it like this: when your readers are done, what do you want them to remember? What is the message, the idea, or the grand understanding you want your readers to take with them, long after they have forgotten your words? What do you know that they, too, need to know?

You should always write with your theme in mind. Your theme will lend a natural structure to your words, and it will help you find exactly where you need to end your writing, be it fictional, or other.

But when you are obsessed with your message, you endanger your writing. Swen, intent on a glorious death, died like a fool. You, too, can kill your writing, if you are too heavy handed with your theme.

You must never force your theme down your readers’ throats. Unless you’re writing a morality story with a blunt ending, your theme should crop up naturally. Use motifs (repeated ideas and images), use dialogue and contrast (Think of it in terms of ‘x versus y’, for example if your theme is the importance of forgiveness, show your protagonist forgiving someone where your antagonist would not), but treat your readers as you would want to be treated. They’re not stupid, after all.

Not like Swen.

Thank you for reading. Don’t forget to like, follow the blog, and comment. If you’re looking for something to read, why not read my most recent short story, which you can read online here, or download the ebook from Smashwords here

Oh, and if you want to talk about Mad Max: Fury Road (the inspiration for this piece), I’m going to post about it soon, so save it until then. Spoiler: I hated it. I loved it, too, but I hated it more.

Image courtesy of Vishal via Wallpaperseries.com

6 thoughts on “Why You Need a Theme – And How It Can Kill Your Writing

  1. Ah, so far behind on peoples posts!

    Theme is critical – and something I’ve started to look for in books I read. If I feel like a book has ‘missed the sweet spot’ (generally confining it to a 3 out of 5 at best) its normally because I can’t spot a solid or interesting theme when i get to the end. It’s either non-existent or too heavily buried.

    Surprisingly Ive not come across too many stories where the theme is too big, too obvious… but I suspect these are corrected in editing. Although I think Frank Herbert used to slap readers over the head with theme all the time, and I love his books. 🙂

    Anyway, theme is one of the main things I try to nut out when I’m writing short flash fiction – the better and more popular pieces always have a strong theme.

    Good advice as always 🙂


  2. Reblogged this on COW PASTURE CHRONICLES and commented:
    When I began writing my novel, theme was not a conscious part of the early drafts. But, as I wrote the theme naturally evolved.
    P.S. Hoffman points out, …”theme will help you find exactly where you need to end your writing, be it fictional, or other.”


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