Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Three Ways to Make a Good Story Great

Why does a powerful story grip us? A tale that gives our feelings a roller-coaster ride will certainly keep us turning the page but will we remember it a year later? Perhaps not. Yet another tale might linger in our memory for a lifetime. Why? Because it has a strong theme.

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 passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was 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. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).


  1. When I first read this post, I thought of the Rachmaninov rhapsody based on a Paganini theme. The 18th Variation, perhaps the best known, was the theme for a 1953 movie, The Story of Three Loves. The full rhapsody, as I recall, has 24 variations, each unique and each beautiful in its own right.

    Theme is an essential element of literary works just as it is of music, paintings, etc. Dr. Yeoman's post reminds us of its necessity and the value of mixing and matching themes to create unique, original stories. Yes, all themes are bound up in human nature, but it's their interaction and contraposition that create great tales that grip readers.

    Excelllent post, Dr. Yeoman. Thank you for sharing, and thank you, Maryann, for posting it.

  2. I wanted to say that I think this is a great post. I love the theme....that there are no new themes, just new ways to tell the story. It's all in the telling, the writer's voice, if you will.

  3. True, Yvonne. There are no new themes because our primal human drives have, arguably, remained the same for millennia. That said, it would be interesting to see if any entirely fresh themes emerge, under pressure of evolution, in the next millenium!

  4. As I recall, the last theme I wrote came back with a C- on it.

  5. LOL, Christopher. We can always count on you for a good chuckle.

    Thanks so much for this post, John. It is most helpful. I had never looked at theme in quite this way before.

  6. I am definitely going to try that proverb exercise. Thanks for the excellent idea.

  7. Good to see you here again, John! For the rookie writer theme (or premise) is often a second draft determination: you stand back and say, "What kind of story did this turn out to be?" Once you know, it's a great way to determine the relevance of plot points. If you receive feedback saying "This just doesn't feel like it belongs," chance as are it doesn't tie into the theme.

    A very useful post!

  8. I love the proverb exercise, too! Great writing prompt. We could have split this exercise into two posts, it has so much good stuff in it! ;)

  9. Ah! I hadn't realised I was doing things "right" all along - I might start out with one theme, but then inadvertently bring in elements that contradict it by showing the opposite to be true. I'm definitely going to explore this more.

  10. Thanks, Kathryn. I'm right in the middle of judging several hundred entries in my latest story contest and - do you know? - the one thing that's starting to separate the possible winners from the also-rans is theme.

    The good stories merely tell a tale; the ones now vying for a prize have a great theme behind them that makes the story timeless. This theory works!

  11. Thank you. Geesh, it's about time this was talked about. Great stories always touch something universal inside of us, no matter how it's dressed up. You can be specific in your characters, story, voice, da-da, da-da, but if they all add up to something in the string of human DNA, it's going to have a huge audience and a long life. Even the current abundance of fallen angels, ghosts, and reluctant vampires touches us on a deeper level and have an appeal across generations. Love the use of proverbs and your other suggestions. A welcome and refreshing post.

  12. I appreciate that, Cyd. Primal drives are the motor of every great story, I think, even if they're not foregrounded. No amount of wordplay can replace a powerful theme.


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