A theme is a re-enactment of some primal human drive. It’s the essential meaning of a story.
If a police officer is promoted to a top job for his success in arresting drug dealers, that’s a news report. But if he turns down the job because he wants to carry on arresting drug dealers - maybe drugs destroyed his family - that’s a story. Why? It has a meaning. Its theme might be ‘there’s no ambition sweeter than revenge’.
How do you deepen a story with a powerful theme?
One way is to detect the pattern of primal emotions already present in a story - and bring that pattern out. Arguably, ‘meaning’ is the detection of pattern. Find pattern in a well-written story and the story acquires ‘meaning’. A tale that engages us has played on our emotions. It has stirred some primal drive, some timeless pattern. Just clarify that pattern.
If you can’t state it as a proverb, howsoever crassly, you don’t have a theme.
Another way is to build a story around a theme you acquire from elsewhere. Does the process sound formulaic? It is. But it works.
Find a Dictionary of Proverbs. Take two proverbs and set them in opposition to each other. For example, ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’ could be contraposed with ‘you have to speculate to accumulate.’ Then toss in another proverb at random, for example: ‘you have to be cruel to be kind’.
Suppose a man gambles foolishly. His fiancée throws her engagement ring at him, hoping it will shock him into his senses. He overcomes his addiction, joins Gamblers Anonymous and woos her back.
On their honeymoon, she asks him suspiciously ‘How did you afford our sumptuous wedding?’ He beams. ‘I put your ring on a no-hope horse and it came in 50:1!’
What’s the theme here? Take your pick. But perhaps the story has emerged with a new theme entirely: ‘it’s the no-hope horse that wins the greatest prize’.
Take proverbs off the shelf - and mix them together. Use your creativity to weave them into a fresh story and the result will not seem formulaic at all. But the story will resonate with ‘meaning’.
Another idea is to adapt an old fable.
A wonderful source is the Fables of Poggio, a 15th century humorist, but any old jest book will present fables grounded in a timeless proverb or truism. Just give the fables a new twist.
In one of Poggio’s tales, a merchant away from home writes a letter to his shrewish wife and a lecherous one to his mistress. Both on the same day. But he muddles the envelopes. Each woman gets the wrong letter. When he returns home he finds his wife - delighted by his amorous letter - a changed woman. This is just as well as his mistress, angered by the coldness of his letter, refuses to see him again.
What’s the theme here?
Maybe that ‘we are blind to the treasures we already possess’? (Oscar Wilde used that theme to great effect in A Florentine Tragedy.)
It wouldn’t be difficult to craft a modern story in which a man or woman emails their lover but sends it, by mistake, to their spouse. Or vice versa. Or somebody tangles up their address book and emails an old lover with a message intended for a new lover. And the accident changes their lives.
In summary, a story must have a great theme. But there are no new ‘themes’, because each theme is founded in our basic natures, the DNA of the human race. Simply find the theme that’s already inherent in your story and foreground it. Or take several themes off the shelf, mix and match them, and so create a story that appears entirely fresh but will glow with primal meaning.
Dr John Yeoman, who holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing, is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. He now runs the Writers’ Village short story contest which draws 1,500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. His free book How to Win Story Contests for Profit and 14-part course in story writing for the commercial market can be found at: