In office hours last week, a writer in The Habit Membership asked about themes: was she supposed to be inserting themes in the stories she wrote? Her favorite stories, after all, were fairly bursting with themes.

I suggested that maybe what literature teachers call theme, storytellers call desire. When you know what characters want—and their usual strategies for getting what they want—you begin to have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to do in a particular situation. For that matter, you get a better idea of what they’re likely to wear, what their relationships are going to be like, what their jobs are likely to be, whether or not they’re going to be Employee of the Month. You can put them in situations in which their usual strategies no longer get them what they want. Then you can watch them try something different.

In the course of all this storytelling, patterns of meaning will start to coalesce around your characters’ desires and strategies for getting what they desire. Those patterns can hardly help but coalesce, because that’s what they always do. If you were to tell five anecdotes about your mother, patterns of meaning would inevitably take shape around your mother’s longings and interpersonal strategies.

A theme is nothing else but a pattern of meaning that a reader notices in a story. But just because literature teachers or literature students identify these patterns or themes, that doesn’t mean the authors necessarily put them there on purpose. (Though it is always possible that a writer, in the course of writing, noticed an emerging theme and punched it up a little through diction, figurative language, imagery, etc).

Good storytellers tend not to start with pre-existing themes, building stories around them. Rather, they follow the story and let the themes take care of themselves. 

1 Comment
  • Dee Lentsch
    8:28 AM, 1 July 2022

    Is the Habit Membership helpful for people writing non-fiction? I am 62 and would like to write essays — but just don’t know where to start. Too many ideas, no focus, and no audience. What would you advise?
    (And thank you for the podcast and newsletter. I have found so many new authors through the conversations. Such a blessing!!!!)

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