Stories and themes

Imagine walking into a bookshop and having to look through shelves labelled ‘love’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘revenge’ to pick your read. By choosing ‘revenge’ for example, you could end up with a thriller, a love story or a drama. That probably explains why bookshops have other categories.

I was quite baffled when, about a year ago, in a writing workshop, I had to think about stories in terms of themes. A theme is the core of a story, glue that holds it together. So why isn’t it easier to discover?

Luckily our facilitator had a great exercise to help lure themes out and get some clarity. Here it is: 

  1. Write down five to seven books or films that you’ve enjoyed lately;

  2. Sum up in one sentence what they are about (e.g. A detective called out of retirement to investigate the death of a politician);

  3. Write down one or two key words that sum up the themes in this story.

As it turned out, all the stories I chose had similar themes, despite belonging to completely different genres. At home, I applied this exercise to my own stories. The results blew my mind. Every story I’d ever written had one or more of these themes. Yes, every single one. It was quite a discovery because up till that point, I hadn’t given it much thought.

Probably, if I tried to write something based on those themes, it would come out as an academic paper on identity, social justice and family. In my experience, those don’t appreciate it if you try to include dead bodies or mysteries in them. Themes can help to bring the essence more into focus and strengthen the story. At least, I hope so.

How about you? Ever thought about what kind of stories make you tick?