The Themes for Writers App is a handy way of tracking the theme of your story in order to be sure it resonates with something the audience cares about. In this post we’ll explore why every story has a moral, why that moral belongs to one of the seven themes and how you can make your writing richer by going deeper into the world of your themes.
So let’s start with the basics…
Your story’s moral and your story’s theme.
Most stories have a moral, all stories deal with a universal theme.
The moral of the story is an answer to the question “what is the story really about?”; what’s the universal truth wrapped into your story? When you finish a book or a film you’re often left thinking about the questions it raised – is killing ever justified? Are we caring for the people we love or are we smothering them? What’s more important: loyalty or justice? At the end of the tale the writer shows us a world and says: like it or not the world is like this. The moral can usually be summed up as a phrase: “good will always triumph over evil” or “you can’t beat the system”.
Your story’s theme is, for want of a better phrase, the sphere of human experience that the moral explores.
These thematic areas are basically the seven things that human beings care about deep down: the quest for love, the urgency of survival, the need for justice, the journey of knowing oneself better, forging riches, establishing power or the need for recognition.
In the Themes for Writers App these are summarised as:
The idea that there are only seven themes was first attributed to celebrated writer Goethe. When I heard about I couldn’t get it out of my head. There are a fixed number of things that we care about. Our stories always circle around at least one of these themes. I hope that once you get to know these themes you’ll begin to find them in the heart of each and every story.
Sometimes you will find several themes being covered in a single tale. However the most common approach is to explore many different aspects of a single theme and this can help create a really rich story.
Morals in Themes
In most stories, the theme is fairly obvious – a romantic comedy is about love: the importance of love; how love isn’t always easy to achieve. Morals of a love story could be: “To love someone else you have to let some part of you go”, or “to find love you have to first conquer your fears”. These are “love morals” and your story, while being about love in general, should depict (but not hammer home!) the moral.
It’s quite common, particularly in films for the moral of the story to be clearly stated by some character other than the hero – very early on. Pretty much every film will have some character deliver some piece of advice like “You know, if you want to find love, you’ve got to let something go.” At the time, it just sounds like another wise piece of unhelpful advice. But as the movie plays out that – without ever saying it again – that statement will nag at the audience. Is he/she going to be prepared to let that thing go? Surely he realises he can’t have her and the trophy? Oh you idiot don’t go after the trophy – go after her! The audience is practically screaming it at the screen…. The hero is the last to realise…. Wait, it’s not the trophy that’s important… its her! This is when we the audience get a kick! Yes! Finally! It’s an incredibly satisfying moment for the audience. Tease them with it then give it to them in the end.
(Or kill him or her off and tell them “well you’ve learned a lesson today folks” depending on what sort of mood you like your audience to leave in.)
The points are
- Bury the moral early, so the audience have it in the back of their minds
- Never repeat it verbally, just show it playing out
- To do this, know your theme
- Your moral relates to one of the themes.
Once you’ve seen this in one movie, you’ll spot it in pretty much every one. For more on this and other brilliant movie-writing advice (“Theme Clearly Stated”) check out “Save the Cat” by the late great Blake Syder.
Values and Themes
Just as there are seven themes, there are also different flavours or values in that theme. It’s your job as a writer to offer a rich journey through all the different aspects of that theme.
In a story about Love there are often lots of different types of love: Romantic love, Buddy love, the love that comes from knowing someone for decades, the love that is better for being fleeting or unobtainable. The more of those elements you throw into your screenplay mix, the better, the richer it will be.
As well as the positive side of the theme, equally important are the negative side, the neutral side and the deepest, darkest side.
In the Themes for Writers App we refer to those values as
I’ve listed them in this order as this is usually how we meet the flavours of these values in the story. I’ll now explain
Neutral – When we first meet our characters they are experiencing the neutral version of the theme. They’re ticking along – but something is missing. There is a lack of Justice. They’re Surviving by just living an ordinary life. But there is a sense that something needs to change…. Love is missing from someone’s life, the prize is just out of reach, our hero is effectively powerless. The hero is clearly lacking something in that thematic space.
Positive – Then the opportunity to experience the positive version of that theme is presented to the character. They see how good the world could be! They meet someone they could love! They are presented with an opportunity to win something amazing. So they go after it. And pretty soon they meet the…
Negative – Life isn’t smooth. Nice things don’t always come our way. Here is a fundamental truth: when we become aware of the positive side of something we care about, we very quickly uncover the nasty side of it too. In a world where true love is a goal, we need to be aware that there is a nasty, seedy side of love too. To reach the positive we have to learn how to cope with the negative.
Most of the rest of the tale is about swerving between not just one of these positive aspects of the theme, but many different versions of the positive and negative aspects of this theme. Amazing romantic gestures have to sit side by side with the saddest, most pathetic, heartbreaking version of anti-love. And at some point we have to reach rock bottom. This is the…
Nadir. The Nadir is the very lowest point of the tale. Not only has everything gone wrong, it’s gone irretrievably wrong. It’s a moment in the story where the very worst version of the theme rears its ugly head. Often the Nadir has a hint of deception surrounding it – the person we thought loved us was actually cheating on us, or using us. The power we have was used to cause unbearable suffering. Justice lets us down, rewarding the wrong-doers.
The Nadir serves a very specific purpose. It is this
The Nadir stretches the elastic of our despair so that when it is overcome we are catapulted into a joyful place. The worse things get, the better it is when they are resolved. In other words – the key to a satisfying ending is to precede it with a very real and terrible possible outcome…
In this way the Theme also helps structure our story.
If we were to draw a diagram of how the themes play out in our story it would look like this
In the above schematic we see that we begin in the world where there is an absence of a specific thematic value. In a Money story, say, we start with someone getting by – just ticking along, but then an event opens up an opportunity for them. A positive vision appears: someone just gives them a million pounds, or a secret treasure is revealed. This gives them a purpose and drive.
The story then plays out and at some point they realise that this thing they’re chasing isn’t all its cracked up to be… There are negative aspects too – they’re going to have to learn how to be sensible with their money or that not everyone can have money, and those that do aren’t always deserving. This is where you have to be at your most inventive – present the audience with all the joys and horrors that the quest for this theme can bring.
This whole host of good and bad aspects of the theme make the picture actually looks more like this:
After a few of these ups and downs, there comes a moment where the hero faces the worst of all version of the theme. You as a writer also need to come up with some extreme negative – but the Themes for Writers app should be able to help. Here in the Nadir the hero faces extreme corruption perhaps – they are invited to become part of an elite of secretive billionaires controlling the world: this is what money can do to people!
So having faced that awful situation, they are finally prepared to make the right choice. Again, it’s up to you to tell the audience what that is: “it’s better to live in poverty than to be part of this elite cult”, or “the hero uses their riches for good rather than evil,” but usually there is a positive ending.
It isn’t always a positive thing that crashes into the hero’s world. In a horror for example the arc might look like this where a big negative (a monster) kicks off the story; there is a moment where the heroes think they know how to beat it; it reveals a deeper horror (they’re one of hundreds of kids slaughtered this way) and perhaps they never quite escape…
I hope this post has helped you
- Understanding how important having a clear theme is in your story
- Inspired you to take a theme and run with it
- Think about how to enrich your story by visiting lots of aspects of your theme
- Given you the tools to think about where to place significant Theme moments in your writing for maximum resonance with the audience
The Themes for Writers app can help you keep track of the themes of many stories, or the multiple themes in one story.