Recognizing Themes at Each Stage of the Writing Process

by Sara Letourneau
published in Writing

About four years ago, a friend and I were talking about a YA fantasy manuscript I was drafting at the time. This friend, who’s also a writer, was ecstatic to hear I was working on a new story and wanted to learn more. So I asked, “What would you like to know about it?”

“Well,” my friend said, “what are some of the literary themes?”

My reply? “Ummmm…. Let me think about that.”

It was an embarrassing response, but an honest one, too. Theme wasn’t something I’d thought much about before then. I knew what the story was about in terms of plot and characters. But in terms of the big picture or the ideas it explored? I had no clue. In fact, I began worrying that, because I hadn’t consciously considered themes up to that point, maybe my story didn’t have any themes. (Good news: It did.)

Maybe you’ve wondered the same thing: “What point in the writing process should I start paying attention to themes? Should I nurture those ideas from the very beginning, or wait until the story’s further along?” The answer is… It’s not so much when you should start thinking about themes, but rather when it feels appropriate depending on each story’s unique process, from the moment you begin brainstorming to the changes you make with each draft.

Recognizing Themes During the Planning Stage

Sometimes you’ll recognize your story’s themes shortly after inspiration first strikes. That spark might not be a theme in itself, but as you consider the plot or characters more deeply, the heart of the story eventually becomes clearer. If you don’t recognize those themes until later in the writing process, that’s OK. However, having that early awareness can help you grasp – and remain focused on – what the story is really about.

Neil Gaiman’s Coraline is a great example of this. Gaiman wrote this novella after one of his daughters, when she was young, told him stories about girls like herself whose mothers were kidnapped by “evil witches who looked like their mothers.” He also, as indicated in this interview, had an idea of what Coraline would be about based on the journey he wanted his heroine to take. “I wanted to write a book about what being brave is,” he said. “It’s being absolutely scared and doing what you must do, despite fear and obstacles.” Thus, from a conceptual perspective, Gaiman sensed early on that courage would be one of the story’s themes.

More recently, Angie Thomas wrote her YA blockbuster The Hate U Give after the real-life police shooting of Oscar Grant, an unarmed black man. She has also discussed how her experience of attending a mostly white, upper-class Christian college influenced another of her protagonist Starr’s struggles during the story. “There were things that I went through while I was in college that I would not share with my classmates because I was afraid that they would see me as, ‘Oh, that’s the poor black girl from the ‘hood,’” Thomas said. “[And] I think in Starr’s case, she’s afraid, too. ‘If I expose this part of myself, all of a sudden they’re going to look at me in a different light. And all of this work that I’ve put in to show them this Starr will be for nothing.’” Though Thomas doesn’t specifically name race and identity as themes in The Hate U Give, she was likely aware of those ideas because of the story’s inspiration as well as the real-life experiences she wanted to incorporate.

So, how can you recognize some of your story’s themes during the brainstorming stage? Try either (or, even better, both) of these exercises:

  • Develop an objective statement. Use Neil Gaiman’s method and complete this sentence: “I want to write a book / story about [fill in the blank].” Your answer can focus on the big picture or the specifics. Either way, it will hint at some of the themes bubbling under the main conflict or the protagonist’s dilemma and then help you concentrate on the story you want to tell.
  • Understand the role that the protagonist’s struggles will play in the story. In The Hate U Give, race and identity naturally emerge as themes through the main plot and through the racial discrimination and dueling identities that Starr experiences almost daily. Consider what kinds of struggles your characters might face on a consistent basis. How might those struggles influence the story’s events and shape the character’s journey? What themes might emerge from this?

Recognizing Themes During the Drafting Stage

Right now, you might be thinking, “How can I spot a story’s themes when I haven’t started writing yet?” Indeed some writers will find it challenging – even impossible – to recognize themes before beginning the first draft. This may be especially true if you’re a pantser (i.e., using your intuition rather than an outline to guide you). After all, the drafting stage is when you, the author, are experiencing the story for the first time. You’re getting to know the characters, imagining the setting, and building each scene through dialogue, action, and sensory details. Some things may change later on, but the most important elements – including themes – should gradually become less foggy.

In my own experience, the drafting stage is when I start becoming mindful of theme. This was partly a result of the conversation with my friend, and I was determined to give her a clear answer. So I read over the scenes I had written up to that point and reviewed my outline to remember where the story was heading. Through that deep study, I discovered themes such as family, revenge, and secrets in that story; and then made a conscious effort to strengthen those themes in later drafts. And now, thanks to my heightened awareness of theme, I’m already recognizing which ones are shaping the heart of my latest manuscript.

How did I discover my story’s themes? And how can you do the same if you’re currently in the middle of the first draft? Here are some suggestions:

  • Deconstruct your story’s building blocks. Select a story-telling element, then analyze it in select scenes to determine the emerging themes. With dialogue, for example, you can read some of the story’s most important conversations and ask yourself, “What are the characters really talking about?” If you need some direction, check out our Developing Themes In Your Stories posts, which feature exercises that can help you with your investigation.
  • Consider your main character’s choices. Theme, as stated in our working definition, is often illustrated through the character’s journey through the story. Any actions or decisions that the character makes will therefore reveal those themes and any related messages you want to convey to your readers. So, why does this character choose one option or the other? What happens as a result? Which theme(s) does his choice highlight, and how?

Recognizing Themes During the Revision Stage

Knowing your story’s themes by this point in the writing process can prove invaluable. How? Believe it or not, it can help you plan for revisions that will address how those overarching concepts are handled. For example, if you notice that certain scenes push a particular theme too forcefully, you can rewrite those scenes so the theme can emerge more subtly. Thus, recognizing and evaluating theme as part of your revisions will allow you to strengthen the story as a whole so that the plot is focused, each character serves a purpose, and nothing feels exaggerated or out of place. It can also help with the querying process (listing three or four themes will show agents that you know your story’s soul) or preparing your book’s jacket copy.

Of course, depending on the changes you make, the themes can change as well. YA author Emily X.R. Pan ran into this while working on her debut novel The Astonishing Color of After. In her Author’s Note, Pan explains that, despite the novel’s many rewrites, “[t]he only thing in common across all the drafts was how it was always a story about family and identity and the different facets of love.” However, the final version of Astonishing didn’t take shape until after Pan lost a family member to suicide. “Half a year later,” she writes, “I began rewriting this book for the umpteenth time, and the complicatedness of that grief stuck in my brain and glued itself into my words.” As a result, the novel’s themes of loss and mental health didn’t exist until late in Pan’s revision process, while the other previously mentioned themes remained.

Curious as to how you can nurture theme during the revision stage? Consider these techniques:

  • Fine-tune the story-telling elements to ensure each theme is well-developed. If, as you revise your story, you discover that your handling of a particular theme could use bolstering, determine how you can strengthen that theme’s presence. What changes could be made to the dialogue, the protagonist’s arc, or certain plot points? Could a new element such as an appropriate symbol do the trick?
  • Be open to new themes that fit the story. Just as Emily X.R. Pan incorporated changes into Astonishing that ushered in new themes, you can do the same if you think those changes (and the related themes) will not only improve your story, but also make sense for it. So, as you review how the revisions will impact the plot, characters, and so on, give some thought to the big picture as well. How would the new themes affect the story, including any existing themes? What other revisions could “synchronize” the new and the old while maintaining your vision for the story?
  • Eliminate extraneous themes. Revisions often mean rewriting or deleting to make room for new and stronger material. So it’s possible that, during this process, you’ll have to remove themes that are no longer relevant. The first two revision exercises above can help you recognize such themes and brainstorm ways of eliminating them from the story. These solutions could range from simple edits to rewriting subplots, characters, or entire scenes – or, if they don’t serve the story, cutting them out completely.

Now Is Always the Right Time

In short, there’s no right or wrong time in the writing process to start paying attention to themes. Recognizing them early on will help you focus on the story’s most important ideas and avoid unneeded elements or conflicts. But as Emily X.R. Pan’s experience shows, revisions can lead to changes in the story’s thematic makeup. The wisest approach then is to be aware of themes throughout the process and know when and how to highlight or discard them. That way, the soul of your story will be clear to you as well as your readers – and perhaps more compelling and emotionally resonant, too.

When in the writing process do you start noticing your story’s themes? What experiences have you had with recognizing themes while planning, drafting, or revising, and/or how those themes changed with each draft?

Sara Letourneau is a speculative fiction writer and poet in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks copious amounts of tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA magical realism novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry is forthcoming in Canary; and has previously appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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