Finding Themes in a Brainstorm

Today we’re continuing with my favorite topic–themes. Some writing teachers believe theme is either intrinsic in your story or it’s not, but I disagree. Theme is a deliberate element, and it can be a core of your story. And as I’ve stood on my soapbox and said earlier (with quite a bit of passion), you really need to plan these things out in advance. Don’t just jump into writing a novel when you get a cool plot idea or premise. Think for a while about the themes you may want to bring out that work in that story. After all, there  has to be some reason you are writing it, and hopefully that reason comes from something in your heart. So bring it out.

Brainstorm for Inspiration

You can always come back into a novel you’ve already fashioned and develop the theme, adding little bits of thought and dialog along the way. But if you’re in the planning stage, all the better, for you can lay out your scenes with your theme in mind. I thought my book, Conundrum, would be about betrayal, for I planned it to be gruelingly filled with lies and treachery. But the moment I sat down to brainstorm this theme, I filled a whole page with this rambling instead: “Truth and lies. Searching for truth: it might not be found–is that okay? Truths differ from person to person. The need for truth differs from person to person. Sometimes it’s better NOT to search for truth–who gets hurt in the process? What if you can’t tell the truth from lies–does it matter? To whom? Do you have to get to the truth to find peace–or is there something more important? Does confessing truth bring more liberation than finding it? If you are truthful to yourself, does it matter if everyone you love lies? Or that your life is founded on a lie?

Tapping into Your Passion

Where’d all that come from? I really thought the theme of my book was something else. But when I let my passion infuse my planning, I came up with the bigger themes for the book. There are actually a few themes at work in Conundrum, as is the case with most of my novels; I like to complicate and enrich my stories as much as possible. I find exploring theme, when laying out a book, opens magical doors. Your subconscious comes to the forefront and may surprise you, as it did me. Theme seeps into character and plot and twists motives. Sure, there will be subthemes that play along, but when you know your theme and you feel its truth validated in your heart as you begin your story, you have your foundation.

I was reminded of Vida Winter as I plotted Conundrum, the old author character in The Thirteenth Tale. She had told lies her whole life, but needed to tell the truth before she died. It was her greatest feat of accomplishment–getting deep and honest with herself, a place that terrified her. Another book with a theme about truth and lies. A beautiful book.

This week, make a list of five of your favorite novels and then take some time to consider their themes. See if you can can identify more than one. Usually great stories have multiple themes, and although these lesser themes may not be so obvious or as essential to the story as the main theme, they add richness to the story overall. Be sure to share in the comments about the novels you’ve thought of and the themes within. Oh, and if you want to read Conundrum–even just the first chapter (you can preview it)–to see how a number of themes are introduced in the very first scene, you can get it here on Amazon.


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  1. The great thing about brainstorming with yourself is that it pulls stuff out of you unedited. What a great example of how one can use this to get a theme. But it’s also a great tool for getting a description that resonates or at characterization. That aside, I do think that writers don’t think of the theme of their story in the beginning — which is okay. But certainly growing to understand it as you write is so important. Excellent post, as usual!

    1. Thanks! Sometimes my themes come as I’m writing, emerging out of the story as the charaters have to make choices. I think it’s a bit inevitable.

      1. I think she just means you can download the preview of an Amazon Kindle book. Click through the link and check on the right side of the page (Send Sample Now).

        Even if you don’t have a Kindle, you can read Kindle books via the Kindle App on any device or download a Kindle reader app right to your PC/Mac. 🙂

  2. Actually the development of the concepts that turn into themes could arise from the nature of the conflict. The theme is usually expressed by some character who sides with the protagonist or the antagonist. That character also forms by seeing how the conflict sets the person in motion.

    So if the conflict poses the young honest farmer against the evil lord as the nobleman takes over the farmer’s village, that conflict helps in setting the stage for the themes and how characters express those themes.

    That conflict could make the author wonder about the misuse of political power as a theme. Or the idea that the young farmer is honest might make the writer wonder how the young person kept an innocence for so long. Was that an example of the person being deluded by the propaganda of the evil lord?

    That same conflict could help in forming the characters who express positions in that theme. Propaganda is necessary, according to the forest warden, a friend of the nobleman. The warden’s life is filled with seeing thieves and he can only hope to slow down the stealing. The young farmer shows skills in helping others irrigate land, but he is threatened because he wants to add water from the commons. The nobleman fears loss of water if he shares the water and voices the need for noble power.

    When the characters voice their worries about sides of the conflict, then the positions of the theme should not appear as preaching. Rather, they should come across as the forces from the social norms.

    What do you think,


  3. This is a topic that always seems so elusive to me because it can be quite subtle. I’ll try your idea of brainstorming out though 🙂

  4. Thanks for the direction on theme. I am turning over a new concept for a novel in my mind and as I do so, I’m giving a lot of thought to theme. I know it will improve the final product.

  5. It’s eerie that while I missed this post on themes when it was originally published, I found it when I could really pay attention. I’d identified my themes initially but they sounded so trite. Now I realize that it’s because I haven’t teased them out enough. Brainstorming will continue, thanks

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