You’ve definitely heard the term “theme” at some point, whether during an English class, while entering a writing contest, or when you’re trying to pick a pre-made look for your Powerpoint presentation. But what is a theme and how do writers incorporate them into their work? What are judges really looking for when they set a theme for a writing contest or magazine issue? The theme for this month: Themes!
What is a theme?
In literature, a theme is the central or unifying idea in a story. There’s what the story is about, and then there’s what it’s capital “A” About. On the surface you have the plot and characters, but permeating this are the themes of the story, the deeper, overarching ideas you want your reader to think about.
Themes aren’t necessarily a moral or a solution to a problem. Instead, they’re the ideas that the story is grappling with and trying to formulate an attitude towards. Some common themes in literature are often set up as “blank” vs. “blank.” For example: “good vs. evil” or “self vs. self.” Themes are also formed by taking ideas like love, power, grief and forming a question around them. “What would you do to protect someone you love?” “How far would you go to acquire power?” Instead of asking these questions outright, telling them to the reader, we as writers wrap them into our story and show them through other story elements like setting, characters, plot, etc.
Themes don’t always have to be ideas, either. Also known as motifs, they can be shown through objects, images, or phrases that appear repeatedly and hold weight and significance in the story. What makes something a theme is its ability to unify a narrative and create emotional or ideological focal points that the reader can follow and form opinions about.
How to effectively incorporate themes into your story
Now that you know what a theme is, how do you write one into your work? First, you’ll want to identify some themes that you want to include. Often, you have to start writing your story before you can know what themes will work best. A good skill to develop is being able to recognize patterns in your writing that can be turned into themes. If you’re able to identify these patterns, you can draw them out and make them clearer for your reader, making sure to incorporate them throughout the entire story.
Not only do you want to include your themes throughout the story, but you also want to show them in different variations, highlighting their nuances and contrasting them with opposing ideas. An example of this: your characters all witness a distressing event. One breaks down sobbing, one runs in the other direction, and one starts laughing hysterically. Instead of having all your characters react the same way, the differences in their reactions show the complexity of the theme, in this case, the effects of trauma.
Themes in writing contests and magazines
Writing contests and literary magazines always have submission guidelines that you must follow in order for your work to be considered. Guidelines are put in place to make it easier on judges and readers to evaluate large volumes of submissions and keep contests fair and organized. Many submission guidelines will also require your work to include a specific theme of the judges’ choosing. There are many reasons for requiring a specific theme, most of which I’ve already covered above: themes not only create unity in a single work, but they can also connect a collection of works like in an anthology or magazine issue.
While a theme requirement may seem more open to your own interpretation than other requirements like word count and file format, judges are expecting writers to faithfully interpret the set theme as best they can. This means that you can’t simply take a previously written piece and add a few lines mentioning the theme. Either you’ll need to do a full rewrite of a story to incorporate the theme or write a new story centered on the theme. Keep in mind what a theme does for a story and how to effectively incorporate it. This is what the judges are looking for!
When you’re able to keep your story focused on the theme and present it in compelling and nuanced ways, you’ll have a much better shot at winning the contest or getting accepted into a magazine. Judges set themes for a reason—don’t ignore them!
About the author: Lindsey is currently working towards her BA in English and Creative Writing at Brandeis University. She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. She is also an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.