IV. Brainstorming 101:Heart of the Novel– Themes

First of all…

Merry Christmas, Comrades!

Second of all, I apologize that I didn’t update last week. I’d totally forgotten I’d be literally out of the country for my ACT. (No, Canada doesn’t host as many testing dates as the States. And going across the border just for the ACT is something completely normal for crazy Asian students.

Now that all that is over and gone (though I’m struggling with finding recommenders–I’m a homeschooler, really), I can focus on my writing more. I hope. And catch up on my piles of reading lists. 

Anyhow, for the fourth installation of my Brainstorming 101 series, we will invite the heart of it all–themes. 

My Experience with Themes

Before we go anywhere, I want to share a story with those of you who are thinking, “What’s so important about themes? What are themes in the first place?” Yes, I was just like that. I would come up with exciting characters, a dazzling storyline filled with twists and turns, and I would battle them down onto the paper. I might revise a few sections or completely rewrite them to work out plot holes, and that was it. I’m not sure if I even knew I had themes in my stories. 

And I totally crashed most of them.

Ouch, Anna.

The thing was, I had themes in my stories. I just never thought of them consciously enough to make my stories breathe life.

So let’s look at the definition of a theme according to Merriam-Webster.


1a: a subject or topic of discourse or of artistic representation

Ex. guilt and punishment is the theme of the story

b: a specific and distinctive quality, characteristic, or concern

Ex. the campaign has lacked a theme

But what does it really mean? Well, what I find themes to be are:

The reason you’re writing this specific story with these specific characters, plot, style, and genre. 

Themes are questions you want to ask throughout your story that will be answered in various ways. It’s the ultimate driving force that gives you, your characters, and readers meaning and reason for the story’s existence. 

This is the reason I see books that I would gladly burn to ashes on the bestselling list. No matter how I may feel about that story and the characters, the book had a question that mattered to people, which spoke to them. 

So now that we know what a theme is, how do we use it in our own writings?


I find that themes are most useful when it is in a question format. For example, my theme for this blog post would be, Why themes? I don’t want to be too broad, but I don’t want to be too specific, either. Also, the longer the question is, the more restraint you have. A good theme should be challenging enough to answer as to require some thought, but not too hard that you can’t find a good answer for it after a decade. 

Some common YA themes are:

  • Who am I?
  • How do I move on?
  • What do I mean to this world?
  • Is love worth it?
  • What is trust?
That’s a good thematic question indeed.

Think about your story (if you already have one). What are some challenges the characters are facing? Or, if you’re coming up with a completely new story (or re-constructing like I am), what questions are relevant to you? I find it vital you make a personal connection between your theme. Even if your story is set in a dystopian world, people have the same basic emotions. They would ask the same questions about themselves and the world around them. 

After you have a theme, write it out. Then rework it in different phrasings. Come up with three answers to that question. From that, draw out Experiment in Living (EiLs) (or Lies the character believes initially) of different characters. How do they come to understand the thematic truths? Or how do they deny that truth, if you are writing a negative arc?

So that’s kind of the introduction I have for you on themes. For more information, I recommend you check out K. M. Weiland’s blog posts on themes and the relationship between other aspects of writing. 

Until next time, comrades! Have yourself a very, merry Christmas!

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