Your story’s theme

Your story’s theme is an answer to the question “what is the story really about?”; what’s the universal truth wrapped into the story? When you finish a book, or a film, you’re often left thinking about the questions it raised – is it okay to kill? Are we caring for our children or are we smothering them? What’s more important, family or justice?
Your theme runs through the whole piece. Themes are important because they tackle subjects we feel strongly about, things we care deeply about. A good theme, well handled, is vital for emotionally engaging the audience.
Themes often aren’t clear cut. They stray into grey areas. They’re things we disagree on – and therefore fascinate us.


The Seven Thematic Topics

It’s been said that all human desires can be summed us the attempt to attain one of seven things:
justice    Justice
selfaware    Self-Awareness
money    Money
power    Power
love    Love
survival    Survival
glory-2    Glory
I find this a pretty neat idea and I keep coming back to it – there aren’t many stories that don’t tackle at least one of these themes…



Linked closely to the theme is the moral of the story. Often a simple phrase or saying, the moral of the story is more specific than the theme because it gives an answer to the thematic question.
If your story is a Justice story there are themes of crime and criminality being explored. The moral of the story might be statement such as “crime doesn’t pay”. It’s the moral if that’s the answer you leave the audience with. But first you have to ask the question – Does crime pay?
To keep an audience engaged you use your thematic moments to constantly ask that question, and constantly answer that question in lots of different ways:  yes it does pay, no it doesn’t. Only in this way will the audience GET TO THE CLIMAX OF THE STORY DESPERATE TO KNOW WHAT THE ANSWER IS… and hopefully get a SATISFACTORY answer – usually the one the majority consider fair (And don’t be mistaken, audiences judge a story on how fair the outcome is… don’t expect everyone to love your story if you shrug your shoulders and say life isn’t fair ;))
Thematic Value
Throughout this journey you present audiences with a thematic VALUE. Each scene plays with “does crime pay / does it not”. When a scene answers that question, the audience perceives there is a change in VALUE.
The thematic value states are:
positive Positive
neutral Neutral
negative Negative
nadir2 Nadir
The two main value states are Positive and Negative.
These might be as simple as Justice or Injustice, or a more subtle form such as Appropriate Justice or Inappropriate Justice (or Just Revenge vs Unnecessary Revenge).
By varying the moral value of each scene (crime pays/ doesn’t pay) and the value (justice, injustice) you are keeping the audience guessing on how your story will deliver on the theme – which moral argument will win. It will also leave them thinking about what it means to win.
With any luck they’ll have made their decision about what they believe in the context of your story and already identified with one side – they are invested. They are ENGAGED. Your theme is all about creating audience satisfaction.
The two other value states  Neutral and Nadir represent two specific moments in your story. Neutral normally occurs near the beginning and is used to denote the absence of a resolution to a theme – it’s not that justice or necessarily and injustice has been done – but there is a lack of justice, that demands to be tackled. A great place to start a story.
Finally there is the NADIR. This is an absolute low point in the tale, usually a state worse than simply injustice, a betrayal of something deeper such as exposure of corruption in the system and usually the point that tips the audience in favour of one or the other moral arguments.
This is a moment so low, so unspeakable, so unforgivable that the audience’s mind is made up – that character deserves to die or that other character deserves to win. Deserving, and the fairness of the situation is usually what is called into sharp relief here.
This usually occurs before the final act, and galvanises audience support (or condemnation) of principal characters – Even though the chance of victory may seem very slim at this point. Now we hope the hero will overcome their flaws and win.
There is much written about the “Seven Basic Plots” and while there isn’t a direct map between those “basic plots” and the seven themes, it is true that certain themes are at the heart of certain plot-types of sub-genres.  A heist movie or whodunnit is usually about justice at its core. A romantic comedy is usually about love. A rags-to-riches tale implies the value and approach to money is important. These genre descriptions can be great ways of promising a theme without stating it explicitly.
Themes and multi-episodes.
When creating a series is can be very useful to define a core theme for the whole series. (Survival is at the heart of medical drama – or a zombie series!) But it can also provide inspiration for stories when episodes explore the other themes. A six-part British sitcom such as Blackadder is a great way to deal with how a character gets into different situations and explores different themes in each episode. For longer running series, different character journeys can be exploring different themes. The nurse looking for love, the doctor obsessed with power…
In any case, having an understanding of your general theme, the value points to hit, and the moral argument you’re making can be fundamental to getting a story that has emotional resonance with an audience.
Click to go through to the App Store

If you’d like to have a pocket guide to carry around with you, then please check out the App


Welcome to the Little Writing Apps blog.

Thanks for visiting.

I expect you’re wondering why I brought you here. Well, the fact is, one of us is a murderer and I intend to find out who it is.

Sorry, force of habit.

I expect you’re more likely wondering what the devil Little Writing Apps are all about.

Little Writing Apps came about because I write – and there were a handful of little shortcuts and ideas I came to rely on in my own writing.  When designing a cast of characters I would reach for the Enneagram so I could be sure I had a diverse group at my disposal. When coming up with ideas for episodes and stories I would always turn to the same universal Themes for ideas. To structure, the Hero’s Journey would help both fire my imagination and keep me sort of on the right track.

I wanted these things with me all the time, so I could tinker with my ideas and capture them. And I thought others might feel the same.

The result is a combination of this blog and the apps. The apps let you have these shortcuts with you at all times in a fun and interactive way, this blog explains the thinking behind them, and for what it’s worth, how I use them.

As it takes less time to create a blog post than it does to write an app ( now there’s an understatement), I expect the blog will be somewhat ahead of the apps… So if you like a post and would like to see an app – let me know!

Disclaimery bit

I don’t claim these ideas are all mine, and I will let you know where they’re from so you can check them out first hand if it helps. I don’t claim they’ll help you make brilliant stories, with vibrant characters who have clear things to achieve in the rich worlds they live in, which you’re able to convey to the reader with an eye for pared-back detail that brings a scene to life through a few choice words and promises conflict and emotional journey. That’s your job. But they might help that journey be more fun.


Happy Writing.


The Enneagram – Part 1

Part 1 is an explanation of how the Enneagram works. Part 2 will explain how to use it in your writing.

Quite simply, the Enneagram is a neat little way of categorising your characters by their psychology.

According to Enneagram theory, everybody falls into one of nine character types and each character type exhibits certain behaviours, based on what drives them. For some it’s the need to put things in order, for others it’s the need to be in control, or be original, or be helpful.

As a writer, I use the Enneagram a lot.

Here are the character types, along with a brief description:

  1. reformer The Reformer or Perfectionist – who likes to see things in order.
  2. Helper The Helper or Giver – who likes to assist others and receive love.
  3. Achiever The Achiever or Performer – who likes to win.
  4. individualist The Individualist or Romantic –  who dreams and likes to be original.
  5. investigator The Investigator or Observer  – who likes to know everything going on.
  6. loyalist The Loyalist or Skeptic – who needs to trust and be trusted.
  7. Enthusiast The Enthusiast or Epicure – who loves to indulge in everything life has to offer.
  8. challenger The Challenger or Protector – who craves security and control.
  9. peacemaker The Peacemaker or Mediator – who brings harmony to situations.

It’s easy to see how having a relatively short list of potential character types immediately creates a range of characters who all have different goals and desires – which opens the door to a wide variety of conflicts, much more subtle than simply good guys versus bad.

More of this in part 2…

Additionally the Enneagram describes some key traits of each type:

  1. holyidea HOLY IDEA – what the character truly believes in. Where their moral compass firmly points.
  2. egofix EGO FIXATION – when they’re at their most selfish, they’re here.
  3. desire BASIC DESIRE – what they really want on a psychological level
  4. fear BASIC FEAR – what this type of person hates and takes great pains to avoid.
  5. temptation TEMPTATION – what is the characters compulsive behaviour.  What they revert to under pressure.
  6. virtue VIRTUE – what redeeming behaviour this character has learnt. What they’re capable of at their best.
  7. vice VICE – what they’re up to at their worst. What foul habits they have.

Again it can really help to build a character from being mostly driven by one particular aspect of their personality. It comes to define them and drive.

The traits a character displays are all related and form a consistency that makes it easy to build up an image of a particular type that is easily accessible.

Perhaps you’d like to try to work out which type you, or some of your  (favourite) characters are!

To summarise the various traits of the types I’ve grabbed this little table. All of this, and descriptions are available in the App.

Type Ego Fixation Holy Idea Basic Fear Basic Desire Temptation Vice Virtue
Reformer Resentment Perfection Evilness Goodness Hypocrisy Anger Right Thing
Helper Flattery Freedom Being Unloved Unconditional Love Manipulativeness Vainglory Altruism
Achiever Vanity Hope Worthlessness Value Pleasing Everybody Deceit Truthfulness
Individualist Melancholy Origin Commonness Originality Self-blame Envy Equanimity
Investigator Stinginess Omniscience Uselessness Competency Overthinking Greed Detachment
Loyalist Cowardice Faith Vulnerability Safety Suspicion Fear Courage
Enthusiast Planning Work Boredom Experience Rashness Gluttony Sobriety
Challenger Vengeance Truth Loss of Control Self-Protection Rejecting Help Lust Magnanimity
Peacemaker Indolence Love Loss Peace of Mind Submission Indifference Serenity


Click to go through to the App store

If you’d like to have a pocket guide to carry around with you, then please check out the App

And, in case I haven’t laboured the point enough already… more on how to use the Enneagram in part 2! (which is coming soon)

Thanks for reading. I always love to hear your comments! – James

The Enneagram – Part 2

So.. how to make the Enneagram work for your writing?

Enneagram Image
The Enneagram for Writers

The Enneagram, to my mind, serves two main functions.

  1. It helps avoid some common problems by creating a consistent set of diverse characters.
  2. It helps fuel the imagination about character-specific plot points.

What more could you need from such a simple tool! Let’s look at these in turn.

Avoiding Problems

The first and most obvious way, is to make sure that you’ve got the bases covered – that all your characters are different types.

Designing the Cast

When designing your cast – make sure you have Reformers, Achievers, Helpers, Individualists… Having a diversity of Enneagram types creates a diversity of characters – who all see the world in different ways, want different things and react differently.

Write Distinct Characters

One of the biggest traps writers fall into is to write all the characters the same. By having different types the chance of this happening is greatly reduced.

Don’t Write Yourself

Another problem is writing every character as yourself.  And that means characters sound like you, and act like you. They do what you’d do (because, you know, you’re a hero too).

By getting a handle on a particular Enneagram type you can make sure you don’t make this mistake – (be the hero of your own story, not the one you’re writing!)

Fuelling the Imagination

But more importantly, the traits of the Enneagram can really help bring rounded characters to life. How? Let’s have a look.

Acting to Type

Start by giving a particular character a type, then get to know that type

Reformers like things to be neat and perfect

Look at the various traits and drivers that a Reformer has – they’re perfectionists and they like everything to be in order. This means different things are going to bother them (messiness for example) and they’re going to have a distinct reaction to being under pressure (they get angry). With seven different traits for each character there’s plenty of scope for creating well-rounded variations of Reformers.

It can help to build extreme characters (i.e comedy or small characters) around one particular trait – a Reformer who gets REALLY ANGRY about things (Basil Fawlty, anyone???)

Stoke Conflict

Having a range of different characters also creates that all important conflict.

Individualists are dreamy and creative

An Individualist (who is dreamy, touchy and obsessed with their output) and an Achiever (who is driven, competitive and sometimes deceptive) are going to create a unique dynamic. There’s a sitcom right there…

You could put them on an oil rig, in space, or in a chip shop. Or in a chip shop on an oil rig in space – but the core conflict is going to be there.  And it’s those human conflicts we crave – when two people want different things – and go about getting it in different ways…


We’ve talked about differences here. But there’s also something unifying in recognising your character as a certain type.  Examining the traits of a Challenger, for example, it becomes clear that they’re driven by a need for security… They challenge as a way of protecting themselves. They want to know the truth. They risk pushing others away… And this adds a completeness to the character… As an audience member we GET this character. Immediately a back-story begins to emerge… what hurt them? Why do they want to be protected?

Audiences are not particularly forgiving of inconsistent characters either. Would your Challenging protector trust someone they had only just met because it helps your plot? Not for a second. They might appear to trust them but would certainly take steps to hedge their bets, or find more about their new friend. This is rewarding to the audience. of course they’d do that… they say. How do they know? They recognise the type…

Character-specific plot points

As you can see from the above, simply by assigning characters an Enneagram type puts a spin on their interactions with everything – in a justifiable and satisfying way… How each character reacts to the same situation is a very telling route into the character – think about how each of the characters in The Usual Suspects reacts to being interviewed by the police. We know instantly that these are very different individuals.

Themes for Enneagram Types

I will touch on various story themes in another post – but for the time being it’s worth understanding that there are certain themes that suit certain Enneagram characters better.

Story Themes
The various story themes. To be covered in another post…

For example a moral crusade tale suits a Reformer at its helm, a detective tale might suit a driven investigator type – and a lone hero action movie would almost certainly want a Challenger taking the action to the bad guys.

The Enneagram Journey

Enneagram Journey
The Enneagram Journey relates character traits to major stages of the character story

Relating specifically to storytelling I have also created something called the Enneagram Journey. This particularly applies to the hero, but can apply to any character.

The idea behind the journey is that a character must grow and change throughout the story. And each of the traits that a character displays can be indicative of a certain stage of that journey.



Journey of a Hero

Act One egofix holyidea Ego Fixation and Holy Idea

When we first meet a character they are often self-obsessed and unreformed. Here their dominant trait is their Ego Fixation – that dark little part of themselves. For an example, an investigator type, who is Stingy and ungenerous when we first meet them.

But they also hold, or are aware of, a noble concept – their Holy Idea  – for the Investigator this is Omniscience – they long to know everything – to uncover the truth. In our detective story this might be to uncover the murderer –  and more importantly HOW it happened. Their Holy idea is a chance at redemption.

Act Two feardesire  Basic Fear and Basic Desire

Pushed into the second act, into new circumstances they have to face their Fears and Desires. They are tested  Our detective has a strong desire to appear competent and capable, and face situations where they feel useless – back and forth proving themselves, failing and trying again…

Crisis  temptationTemptation

Normally they reach a crisis point towards the end of the second act where they face their Temptation – that behaviour they resort to when they’re under intense pressure. For the Investigator this can be Overthinking – paralysis through analysis – being stopped in their tracks – unable to see the way forward. To proceed, they must overcome that temptation…

Act Three vicevirtue  Vice and Virtue

Finally in the showdown finale there are two possible endings – They face their all-consuming and damning Vice to achieve their redeeming Virtue.

For the Investigator, this is a choice between being overcome by greed – being corrupted as the killer revealed tries to bargain them out of it, or having an opportunity to profit immensely by keeping the truth hidden. Or maintaining that cool analysis and delivering the truth while those around around them lose their heads.  Either can be the result keeping the audience guessing to the end. A positive ending or a negative ending – just make sure you’ve given the audience enough reasons for them to reach that end (if they fall victim of their vice, we like to see it coming, if they’re rewarded for their great virtue it’s because they’ve earned it)


So I hope you’ve got a sense of how the Enneagram can help keep track of your characters and inspire your imagination.

As always take as much or as little as you like from this – it is not prescriptive merely intended to help fuel your imagination as a writer.

To get a handy pocket guide for the iPhone to keep with you, study and store your own character types head over to the App Store!

Enneagram for Writers
Click to head over to the App Store!

Thanks for reading and as always all comments welcome!