{THEME} 5 tips for finding the right one

Finding the perfect theme for your novel is tough. For me, it usually takes days to figure out just what I want the theme of my novel to be (not to mention the plot *coughs* that’s impossible).


You might have heard me mentioning theme a ton this month in any writing updates I’ve given. I’ve spent a ton of time this January trying to narrow down the theme for Prison Zero, sharpen the theme for my short story, and just decide on a theme for Found (which I still haven’t done. send help)


Since I’ve had so much experience with this topic this month, I naturally decided to write a blog post on it.


The following tips were discovered through much headdesking, tripping (while running), and shredding of paper. Here they are, so you don’t have to do all that stuff yourself.


You’re welcome 😉


Before I jump into this post, I want to explain theme really quick: theme is usually a single word you choose, like forgiveness. Then you narrow it down with a focusing question, like what makes one worthy of forgiveness? and answer that question to get the message of your novel.


Got it? Great! *throws you all the stuff*


{1. Make Sure It’s A Theme You Can Actually Write}


Surely anything can be written as a theme…correct?


Nope. Not true. Examples of themes that could work would be: trust, patience, courage, sacrifice, etc.


Examples of themes that don’t work might seem pretty obvious: surfing, baking, getting a job, etc.


Yet it’s still easy to fall into a trap of coming up with a theme that just doesn’t work.


Take free will for instance. I thought I was being pretty clever when I came up with that theme. I was lured in by a very perplexing focusing question of what does it mean to have free will?!? (it sounded so juicy, and I fall prey quite easily to juicy questions)


Buuut….as I began to try and answer that question, I found myself getting stuck. Free will is pretty self-explanatory. People might use their free will differently, or believe they don’t have free will, but….


Free will (or at least with the angle I asked the focusing question) isn’t something you can write about, unless you want to get really philosophical and all.


Lesson learned: make sure your theme is concrete and logical enough to actually write.



{2. Make Sure It Isn’t Too Simple (Or Cliché)}


Themes should be simple, but at the same time, they shouldn’t be easy. If you can pick a theme, ask a quick focusing question, and find a nice, simple answer, that’s not a good theme. Good themes delve into the heart of human experience. They ask questions about things real people wrestle with.


That’s not to say the theme can’t have a good, biblical answer. But getting the character to believe and live that answer shouldn’t be easy. There should be other answers to the focusing question that a character can make a logical argument for. It’s easy to say that lying does no good. But what if you’re lying to protect those you love from getting killed? That if you tell the truth nearly everyone you know will die? Still bad to lie, but now you have a complex situation that needs a message with some thought put into it.



{3. Make Sure It Means Something To Your Character}


It’s fun to come up with deep, confusing, or epic themes for a story. But then you gotta think of what character is going to be learning the lesson that is the message of your theme. Ask if this is honestly an issue they’d be struggling with. A ten-year-old wondering about justice? Maybe. Depends on his past. While you can always tweak a character’s past to make him fit with the theme, some themes and characters just don’t fit.



{4. Make Sure It Means Something To Your Story}


This is when it gets a little trickier. We have a strong theme and a character (or cast of characters) to carry it.


Now what?


I personally struggle in this area the most. The outer journey should be a reflection of the inner journey of the protagonist (or vice versa), so the outer conflict should ideally be driven by the inner conflict. An example is if you have a character who’s struggling with guilt. If they’re just saving random peoples’ lives in your plot…how is that about guilt? You can make it about guilt, but you might have to change your plot a bit or come up with a whole new one.


Character arcs are often the key to overcoming this. If you look at how your character needs to change through the story, you can mold the plot to have events that force him to change.



{5. Make Sure It Means Something To YOU}


Of the past four points, I personally think this is the most important.




Because theme is an emotional thing. It’s a deep thing. If you’re bored to death or just plain unpassionate about the theme your novel is tackling, you can bet that your readers will be too.


So how do you find a theme that means something to you?


Look at your own life. Like, look really deep. What’s a question that’s burning in the bottom of your heart? Maybe one you don’t even want to ask or find the answers to. It’s scary to do that, but often that’s the best way to find a theme you’re passionate about.


Having a theme you love makes writing the novel easier, too. I have a particular novel I recently starting writing just for fun where the theme is really, really personal. It makes me desperate and excited at once to write the novel. <3



There you have it! All I’ve learned about theme this month 😛 Next month might be on character arcs or plotting.


Or villains. Who knows? 😉




audrey caylin


P.S. this is the incredible course that made me fall in love with theme.


What’s your favorite part of theme? How do you find the right theme for your novel? This is literally my favorite topic ever, so feel free to leave lengthy comments so we can discuss theme xD

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  • Reply
    January 27, 2018 at 8:26 am

    THIS POST IS THE BEST. Seriously, yes!!! Theme is such an interesting part of writing and adds a whole other layer of complexity (crazy to think I didn’t know a thing about that, character arc, or anything else for that matter)! I love how deep you delve into theme. I haven’t experimented with it a whole bunch yet, but now I’m totally wanting to go figure out ALL THE THEMES FOR MY NOVELS!
    This post was EPIC, AUDREY!
    ~ riley aline

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 6:10 pm

      I KNOW. Like, when I finally found out about theme, I was sooo excited. (I knew about it before, but I didn’t know how to intentionally write a specific theme into my novel). Now I’m (completely) obsessed with learning more about theme and coming up with good ones xD


  • Reply
    January 27, 2018 at 9:35 am

    This was great! Theme is something I have a hard time with myself – like, once you pick one, how are you supposed to effectively weave it into the story? How are you supposed to get your message across without being overbearing? *sighs* It’s hard work, evidently. 😛

    The bit about making sure your theme is special to you – that’s so true! Writing something from your heart can only ever be important… even if it’s rather terrifying at the same time, let’s be honest.

    This is such a great post! I love thinking about themes too, so it made me happy to see this one. – Abi

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 6:13 pm

      Yeah 😛 One trick I’ve learned is to have the theme essentially be the character moving from a wrong belief to a right belief, showing the results of living both of them. Then the message will rarely have to be stated because the character’s actions will speak for themselves. But it’s still SO hard!
      Thanks, Abi! <3

  • Reply
    January 27, 2018 at 1:32 pm

    WOW. This is really helpful, Audrey! =D I love your tips and will definitely keep this post in mind as I’m brainstorming stories.

    I know that you’re a member of the YWW, and I’m looking into maybe joining. What are your thoughts on it? HAs it helped you, and would you recommend it?

    Micaiah @ Notebooks and Novels

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 6:17 pm

      Thanks, Micaiah! I’m glad it was helpful 😀

      I’d absolutely recommend YWW! The community is my favorite part: it’s outstanding. Everyone is so helpful and encouraging. I wasn’t able to really invest in it until recently because of life, but I’ve gotten a ton out of it lately. The content videos are very good too — I’ve learned a lot about how to grow my platform and what steps I need to take with where I am as a writer. Being a member also gives you discounts to Kingdom Pen’s writing courses, and those are the BEST for fiction writers. You should totally join!!! =D

      • Reply
        January 28, 2018 at 8:19 pm

        Thanks, Audrey! =) YWW sounds AMAZING! I’m trying to decide if I would rather join ACFW or YWW right now, and you’ve been very helpful. I will definitely let you know if I have any other questions. =D If I do join, I might have to do at another time, because life is a little overwhelming right now.

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 6:19 pm

      Just let me know if you have any other questions, and I’d love to answer them!

  • Reply
    Catherine Hawthorn (Farm Lassie)
    January 27, 2018 at 1:33 pm

    Theme is really tough for me too….

    I can’t say enough about making the theme personal (and relevant) to you. I’ve had problems when I’m writing a story and I’ll base it off of something personal…and then leave it for a few years and discover that I’m not as invested in it as I was when I first wrote it. And making it personal helps eliminate some of the cliche problem too.

    Awesome post, Audrey!!


    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 7:08 pm

      I’ve had exactly the same thing happen 😛 It’s tough because I know I’ll be working on a story for several years before I can publish it, so I don’t want to choose a theme that I won’t be interested in by then. *sigh*

      Thanks, Catherine!

  • Reply
    January 27, 2018 at 5:46 pm

    I needed this post right now. I’m just getting into a story idea that’s been on the back-burner of months now, and I think my theme is healing. Would you pretty please write a post on writing character arcs, because I am seriously clueless in that department.

    ~ Ella Marie

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 7:12 pm

      I’m glad it was helpful, Ella!
      Oh, healing is SUCH a beautiful theme! I hope brainstorming for that goes really well for you!
      I don’t think I’d know where to start because they’re a huge topic, but I can try xD In the meantime, K.M. Weiland has a very thorough post series on them here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/write-character-arcs/
      + if you have any immediate questions, just shoot me a message and I’ll try to answer them 🙂

      • Reply
        January 29, 2018 at 3:00 pm

        Oooh, thank you for the link! I’ll check it out ASAP. <3 And I'll message you if I have any questions. Thank, Audrey!

  • Reply
    January 28, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    THIS POST IS 10000% WONDERFUL. I LOVE DISCUSSING THEME AS WELL. It’s like…the backbone of a story, in my humble opinion. :”) I hardcore relate to what you said about a theme being personal. YES YES YES. When I look back on novels I’ve written in the past and I see the themes I wrote in them (which were SUPER close to my heart at the time) I’m always amazed by how I feel like “I couldn’t write that today.” IT’S SUCH A STRANGE FEELING AND SO HARD TO DESCRIBE. But I feel like the “question burning at the bottom of my heart” (in your lovely words 😊) is changing all the time. Which is kind of bittersweet, I guess.

    ANYWAY I’M RANTING. THIS POST IS GOLD. I would love to read everything you have to say about character arcs or plotting OR VILLAINS. ANYTHING. 💛

    rock on,

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 7:17 pm

      IT IS TOTALLY THE BACKBONE — it’s the heart and soul and essence of the story <33

      SAME. Some things that I wrote last year I look at in awe bc HOW DID I DO THAT??? I wish I could do it again but I realize there's enough going in my life right now to find a good theme about lol.

      THANK YOU SO MUCH, ABBIEE <33 (I haven't decided yet so I'm open to any and all suggestions xD)

  • Reply
    Jane Maree
    January 28, 2018 at 2:26 pm

    Theeeeeeme. <3
    You have aaall good points here, particularly that last one. Because, if it means nothing to you, then it won't be anywhere near as strong and deep and meaningful as it could be.

    And also the impossible themes. XD I'VE DONE THAT BEFORE TOO. Similar to 'free will' I thought it was a really cool theme and then I almost killed my brain trying to work out what on earth the answer was and how on earth it could actually happen in a novel until I worked out that…Okay yeah. This doesn't work. XD

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 7:19 pm

      Theeeeeme <3 (Josiah turned us into theme-monsters 😉 )
      I guess that point could also be called "write what you know" 🙂
      I KNOW RIGHT? XD I've done that waaay too many times and still do it. One of these days I will stop falling for the juicy, abstract focusing questions.

  • Reply
    Nicole @ Wild Pennings
    January 28, 2018 at 4:10 pm

    Thanks for sharing!! I really found this post helpful, and I love how you broke down theme choice. 🙂

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 28, 2018 at 7:20 pm

      Thanks, Nicole! I’m glad it was helpful 😀

  • Reply
    Sarah Rodecker @Pen of a Ready Writer
    January 29, 2018 at 6:56 am

    This was great! Themes were a struggle for me when I first started writing but, over time, they started shining through in my stories. Sure, they’re pretty transparent in the first few drafts, but with each revision they start coming through more and more. You’re totally right about a personal theme making it exciting to write the story (though terrifying at times!).

    I really enjoyed this post!

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 31, 2018 at 7:45 pm

      Theme definitely takes a while to master! I still have a long way to go myself, but I love it 😀


  • Reply
    Chelsea R. H.
    January 29, 2018 at 8:06 pm

    I seem to be having issues with the comments 🙁 I’m not sure what happened to my previous one (the website just told me there was an “invalid security code”. Whatever that means.

  • Reply
    Chelsea R. H.
    January 29, 2018 at 8:15 pm

    I still can’t get it to work for my long comments 🙁

    • Reply
      Audrey Caylin
      January 31, 2018 at 7:43 pm

      Oh no!! 🙁 I don’t know why it didn’t work… maybe a glitch? I’m not sure 🙁

    Let's chat!

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