About two and a half years ago I went to a writer’s workshop taught by Kelly Sue DeConnick. I talk about that workshop a lot, because it pretty much changed my life. I had been writing for as long as I could remember, but that workshop was the first time I really started to see how stories are made. She also said she often starts with characters, which leads to plot, which leads to theme.
Not everyone writes this way of course. In both novels and comics, there are great writers out there that start with plot, or theme, and work at it from another angle.
Do what works for you. If you are not sure what that is, play with with different ways of approaching a story.
This is what works for me, most of the time:
I start with character, sometimes I have a plot or backstory in mind for them. That’s when I start to think about theme. What do I want this story to say? What do I want to say? I may have a draft started or even finished at this point, or I might be half way through and not sure where the story is going. Theme helps me focus those ideas.
I’ve been working on a lot of shorter stories lately (along with revisions on my first novel and the first draft of my second) so theme has been on my mind often lately. For me, theme definitely does spring from character. For short stories especially, you want that theme to run throughout the story, but not be so obvious that the reader feels like they are being hit over the head with it.
Theme can often be a way for the author to share their voice in a more subtle way. In my story Teeth, Nails and Pain the theme was about overcoming an abusive relationship. I’ll be honest, I didn’t write that story with a theme in mind. That story sort of wrote itself, but the ones that followed were not quite so easy.
Once the story is written, the theme maybe clearly stated or just implied. It is up to you as the author the approach you take. In one of my more recent stories, the first words we read the characters saying are actually the theme. I felt that it set the tone for the story and let the reader clearly know what I was about to write about. Your story may start out with something like “The world is a wild place.” and follow with a plot about living in the wild, or maybe it’s about how humans live in cities, but we’re still savage animals deep down. Either way, you’ve mentioned your theme, and in that story, your reader will know what to expect.
In Teeth, Nails and Pain, I did the opposite. The theme isn’t completely revealed until the twist ending. Though my theme may have been less intentional in that story, the twist was not, and that is what ties my theme and plot together.
If you have written a story but you’re not sure what the theme is, go back through it and look at what the characters are fighting for or against. What do they want? What have they done to get it? Why is it important? Did they fail?
What does that all say? What do you want it say?