How to Harness A Powerful Element in Your Writing (That You Don’t Even Recognise)

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I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.
Joan Didion

Every writer has been asked why they write, and what they write. Sometimes you ask yourself those questions. My question is why do you write what you write?

The superficial answers might be for a deadline, for money, for laughs. But consider why you choose particular subjects or ideas when you have a free hand, or maybe even when you don’t.

Of the myriad possibilities for your last piece of fiction or poetry, what drew you to one in particular?

Eyes Wide Shut

What is art but a way of seeing?
Saul Bellow

It started with a chance remark from a writer friend. She read my short story and commented, “Be careful what you wish for seems to be a theme in your stories.”
“Huh,” I replied.

That got me thinking. I’ve contributed stories to anthologies based on a deal with the devil, another about a wish come horribly true, and a ghost story with an implied wish embedded in the protagonist’s motivation.

Then in my poetry group, another poet asked if I deliberately included the sea in my poems, because beaches often came up in them.
“Huh,” I replied again, eloquently.

Beaches inspired my prize winning story All the sands that touch the sea as well as Deeper.

Screenshot 2019-02-26 at 11.05.49

I checked back, and found the ocean figured in about a third of my works that year. How could I use that new insight?

An Invisible Centre 

The theme of a story is what the author is trying to convey — in other words, the central idea of the story. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters’ actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story’s theme.
Cliff’s notes

In well written stories, theme gives a satisfying sense of ‘I know what that was all about’ in terms of universal ideas like love conquers all or family comes first. Theme is separate to plot or what happens and where. Love can conquer all in any number of different settings.

A story without an identifiable theme, even if well written with engaging characters, leaves the reader wondering ‘so what?’ On the other hand, a story written to a specific theme can come over as preachy, especially when political or religious. The reader feels they’ve been beaten over the head with a blunt instrument.

Check Yourself

Most of us don’t examine our core beliefs on a regular basis, if ever. For a writer hoping to illuminate the human condition through stories, it might be useful to dig a little deeper into the beliefs that drive your behaviour. You might ask questions like

  • what makes me happy?
  • is my life the result of luck or choice?
  • what is the strongest emotion?
  • is ‘blood thicker than water’?
  • are people essentially good or essentially sinful?
  • are rules made to be broken?

Looking a little deeper will help you understand yourself and what guides your choices. And of course in fiction, you can use values to build a compelling character who behaves like a real person in the story.

A list of useful questions to ask and a summary of values can be found here at

Through A Glass Darkly

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.
Steve Jobs

Sometimes the theme is only seen when looking back at a work. During the first draft our job is to tell ourselves the story, as Terry Pratchett said. After a break, re-reading the story should reveal its point, if you didn’t write with one in mind. It might be something unexpected.

Your job then is to strengthen the theme using subtle hints in characterisation and dialogue, so that the narrative hangs together. On the other hand, if theme is too obvious, it may need toning down so that it fades into the background.

If genre is an ocean and plot is the wind steering the boat of characters, they can change course by their actions. But the theme is like a deep ocean current that will bring them to a particular shore, even though they can’t see it.

There’s the Sea Again…

Why does the sea reappear in my work? The beach is a boundary combining air, earth and water aspects of nature. It represents transformation, awe and fear at the power of the sea, and creation/birth vs. destruction/death.

For me it also represents time, childhood, escape. All this and more, before even considering the symbology of water itself.

You could use a sea theme to help with new works. A new story takes shape more easily once you have a setting. Set the story on the beach or on a ship. Use the idea of the shore as a liminal space to come up with a supernatural tale.

Whether it is romance, SFF, magic realism or anything else, be careful what you wish for has depths to explore. There are many different ways in which this might play out. Not all involve a deal with a devil, but that does make for a good tale.

Take your theme and brainstorm possible meanings and related ideas, to improve your writing and make it work on a deeper level.

New Directions

If there were only one truth, you couldn’t paint a hundred canvases on the same theme.

You don’t want to keep writing the same story. So periodically have a look at your values again. They change in importance and evolve as life does, and your art should reflect that.

Look at your works, or better yet ask someone else to read them, and see if a recurring idea or value reveals itself. You may be surprised. Then have a go at a new piece, keeping your theme in mind.

Your favourite themes mean something important. When you’re aware of them, you’ll find it much easier to generate ideas that resonate with you. That resonance makes your stories shine with authenticity.

Let theme inspire you.

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