The How-to Of Creative Writing - Part Two - Theme

Posted at 18:14pm on 23rd August 2008


How did you get on last week? Did you find the list of prompts helpful - i.e. considering a modern take on a Bible story or a nursery rhyme as inspiration? I hope you've got plenty of ideas milling around in your mind. Keep a note of them because we'll be putting it altogether in the next few weeks. And if you've come up with something I haven't thought of, let me know by posting a comment at the end of this post, so that we can all benefit.

(For those of you who've just joined us in the creative writing classes, we were looking, last week, at ideas for Plots and how you can begin to develop them. I'm going to be putting links to all these online creative writing classes at the bottom of each lesson, so that you can find them easily. In the meantime, just click wherever you see a blue link in the text.)

This week we're going to study Theme. Many beginning writers confuse Plot with Theme, but they are entirely different. So let's start by defining the two terms.

  • Theme is not Plot. It does not describe the events in the lives of characters. Plot is the term used for portraying action and events. Thus we speak of plotting a novel i.e. setting out the behaviour and circumstances of the characters in a story-telling manner.
  • Theme cannot be described as: crime writing, romantic fiction, historical sagas, or literary novels. These are all genres. Genre describes the category of a book.
  • Theme is best described as the subject of a novel or biography. Subject in this sense does not mean a character in the story. It is the purpose or focus of the book.
  • Theme is the one word, or sentence, which characterises the reason for the book having been written.
  • Theme might thus be described as the motive for your book.
  • Theme, for example, may be expressed as: forgiveness; betrayal; unrequited love; repentance; turning a self-centred life into a life which serves others, and so on.


Whether you want to know how to write a short autobiography, a testimony, or a novel, you need to identify what it is that you're trying to convey to your reader in terms of Theme. It's best to do this right at the start (though not imperative) because this is what will guide and shape your writing. (If you're someone for whom a Theme will only emerge after you've started writing, you may have to do some judicious editing and pruning at a later stage. All I would say is, don't leave it too late, or you'll be faced with a monumental task!)

So what do we mean by shaping and guiding? Think of Theme in terms of a mould into which you pour plaster-of-Paris (your book). The mould determines the form that your narrative will take. Or think of it as a railway line. In this respect, Theme will keep you on track. Further, it will prevent your drifting off into a siding. In other words, Theme will put a constraint on all the extraneous matter which might - possibly - belong in another book, but certainly has no place in the one you're writing. Let me give you an example.


Some years ago, I was commissioned by Hodder & Stoughton to write the biography of a woman called Susan. The result was a book called Healed Within (you can read more about it, and the journey I undertook in writing it, on my books' page).

Susan was a lovely lady; everyone fell under her spell. But she was also quite strong willed. By her own admission, she had been once been a 'spoiled little rich girl', living it up in an exotic location, where servants and hand-made shoes were the norm for people like her. Tragedy struck in the form of a brain tumour which left her confined to a wheelchair for life.

My contract with Hodder was to produce a book which portrayed not only her suffering but, crucially, the manner in which she overcame her adversity. It was another of those 'hope for the hurting' topics which I've identified on my welcome page as being one of the prime drives in my life. The Theme of the book could be summed up by its title: Healed Within. Susan would never know physical healing in this life, but she had come to a place where healing of her mind, her emotions and spirit was self-evident. She was 'healed within' through and through. Thus the Theme (and title) were entirely appropriate.


But Susan wanted more. She wanted me to include all sorts of events in her later life. The trouble was, that although exciting in themselves, they had nothing to do with her journey through loss (of mobility, marriage, and meaning in life) to the point where she reached a place of healing, peace, acceptance - and even joy. Sometimes, during my interviews with her, she would become quite cross with me. But having identified the Theme, I was able to stick to my guns. The temptation to go down all sorts of avenues which had nothing to do with being healed within was averted.

Do you see how important it is to know the Theme for your book from the start? Without it, your story - whether a novel, autobiography or testimony - may become derailed by actions, occurrences and features which have no place in your narrative. We'll be looking at this in greater detail at a later date.


Take three books, or films, with which you are familiar, and try to distinguish the Theme of each. Now think about your own story and identify the Theme you wish to convey to your readers. Jot it down in a word or two. No more than a sentence.


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We'll be looking at Character. And the following week we'll be putting together Plot, Theme and Character to see how they interact with one another. At the end of this Course, I shall be putting together some Writing Workshops: exercises on all the topics covered.

Related topics: Introduction; Plot

Mel Menzies, August 2008

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller,
Mel is also an experienced Speaker
and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+
in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows.

Her latest novel 'A Painful Post Mortem' may be purchased online here at:
Booklocker; or at Amazon
Approximately 35% of book sales is for charity.

To book her as a Speaker, contact her at:

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