Themes are what connect your story to the cosmos. It’s how other people can invite themselves into your story, how you can get them to care. Themes are the threads that tie your story into everything else.
Working with your themes is the process of acknowledging your story isn’t the first of it’s kind - because it isn’t. Themes are proof you know your story is just a single perspective on the greater landscape we all live within.
Readers may not directly relate to your story, but they will immediately understand your themes. Themes are why proverbs and tall tales are told for centuries - because we all can connect with what they are trying to tell us.
Your story isn’t just a series of things that happen, but how these things happened in relation to a theme.
Discovering your themes
Write your story out, dry as a bone. Then consider a few questions:
What did this series of events teach me?
Now that I’ve written about it, what do I know about the story that I didn’t before?
Where could this story exist? What other publication or magazine would take it?
Some themes are discovered with intention. The story of your mother’s passing may carry themes of love or relief or grief. The story about the time you quit your job might be about the economy, or worker’s rights, or bad bosses.
Some themes are accidental, they come from the reader. The story of your mother’s passing could carry a theme of healing or abandonment. Quitting a job might carry a theme of regrowing or freedom or fear.
The intentional themes are a great place to start your research. Yes, of course, no matter what your end game, your story has research. As you find ways for your story to weave into the cosmos of everything, you have to know what else is out there. What has come before you? How have other storytellers dealt with this theme? You may discover you know the theme better than anyone else, or you may find you have a long way to go.
With every story, start with three themes - two broad and general (love, happiness, grief) and one that has granular detail (getting laid, playing your first show, alcoholism).
Your story isn’t just a series of things that happen, but a series of things that happen in relation to the theme.
As the story comes together, I’ll add the themes in the header of the document so they are present on every page - a constant reminder of what I”m writing towards: the themes the audience will connect with.