Many thanks to those of you who attended my workshop ‘Using Theme To Brainstorm Your Story’ at this year’s When Words Collide Conference in Calgary. Several people asked for a copy of my Powerpoint presentation. I am unable to provide that, but here are the main points of my workshop.

THEME is what your story is ‘ABOUT’.  It’s the emotional heart of your story. It’s the human emotion of your story which creates an emotional resonance within your reader. The theme of your story can be told in one word.
For example:

PREMISE is the What If? of your story.  It’s your plot.  It’s what your story is ‘about’.  For example:
This is a story about a businessman who hires a hooker for a week.  (Pretty Woman.)
This is a story about a lawyer who cannot tell a lie for 24 hours. (Liar, Liar.)

The theme is the coded message that you consciously plan and the audience subconsciously decodes.  The theme should resonate through all of the characters and subplots and be interwoven into the premise and plot. The theme should be present in some form in each scene

Why does your script need a theme?  Because you’ve created this killer premise, but unless there is some emotional logic for the audience (reader) to connect to that premise, the audience (reader) will leave the theatre – (or close your book) – apathetic to what they have just seen or read.

Sometimes a good way to illustrate a theme in your story is to contrast it with the opposite. For example:

Authors sometimes state their theme in their choice of a single word book title.  Ian McEwan’s Atonement.  Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

I hate sports films with a passion – especially boxing ones – but I love Rocky and will watch it over and over again. Perhaps it’s because the underlying emotion of respect permeates every single scene in the movie, whether through dialogue, setting or action. Take one of the first scenes in the film – Rocky goes to his locker to find his key no longer works. His belongings have been relegated to the hooks on the wall, commonly known as Skid Row. What a display of lack of respect for Rocky, that is.  Imagine how he feels? His self-respect must be shattered. Apollo Creed also fails to show Rocky respect in a way that will come back to bite him. He thinks little of Rocky’s boxing skills – even waving off one of his trainer’s concerns when his trainer sees Rocky’s preparation for the match – therefore does not train for the fight. By the end of the match, Creed’s attitude has changed.  ‘Ain’t gonna be no rematch’.

Very often you will find that the same recurring theme crops up in your stories because it will be something that is important in your life or your value system.

Back in 1975, Sylvester Stallone was an aspiring actor with dreams of making it big. But he had a lot going against him including a slight paralysis of his mouth which left him mumbling.

Inspired by a boxing match between Mohammed Ali and Chuck Wemper, Stallone wrote the script of Rocky in 3 days. Producers were interested in the script – but not in him. Stallone refused to sell the script unless he played the title character. The film went on to be nominated for 10 Academy Award.  It won two, including Best Film.

In an interview about the Rocky films, Stallone said, ‘Until a man – and this means a woman too – has been through a real baptism of fire, when you are scared, when you are hanging on, when someone’s hurting you – then you are going to see what you are really made of and then you are going to get the only kind of respect in the world that matters and that is self respect. That’s pretty much what my journey has been. This has been about getting Rocky self-respect… and maybe a bit of that will rub off on me.’


So how can you use theme as a brainstorming tool? Easy. Grab a piece of paper and draw a cross in the middle.  At the top, write PHYSICAL, and the bottom, EMOTIONAL. On the right hand side of the page, write your THEME, and on the left hand side, write the OPPOSITE of your theme.

Theme scan



James Cameron said that Titanic was about MAKING EVERY DAY COUNT. I hate to argue with such a successful director, but I’m not sure you can can make every day count unless you have the FREEDOM to do so. So for me, I would say the theme of Titanic is freedom, and it is illustrated by depicting FREEDOM and it’s opposite (ENSLAVEMENT) in dialogue, setting, action scenes etc.

So how can you use the above diagram to brainstorm your story?

In the case of Titanic, take a piece of paper, as above, and write PHYSICAL at the top and EMOTIONAL at the bottom.  On the RHS of the page write (what I believe is) the theme – FREEDOM.  On the LHS of the page, write ENSLAVEMENT.

titani theme cropped

Then you can brainstorm ideas which you think represent Freedom and Enslavement in physical and emotional forms.

I realise the typeface on the above document taken from my Powerpoint – is too small to read (I’m the very opposite of a geek when it comes to tech stuff), but this gives you an idea of what your page should look like. Below I have listed examples from the individual quarters.  (These only a very selected few from my memory of the film.  If you watch it, you will find many – many – more.)

Rose poses naked for Jack.
Rose cuts Jack’s chains with an axe as the ship sinks.
Molly refuses to be confined by a social convention that insists she wait for a porter to carry her bags, instead deciding to carry them herself. (This is an example of the theme being carried throughout the story via sub-plots and secondary characters.)
Jack’s hair streams in the wind
3rd class is stark but full of life and energy.
Rose dances in steerage.
Rose spits into the wind.
Rose smokes a cigarette in 3rd class.
Rose makes love with Jack.
Iconic scene of Jack and Rose on prow of ship.
On the Carpathia rescue ship – Rose refuses to allow Cal to save her and return her to her old life.
Rose attempts suicide – preferring the release of death to living the life proscribed for her.

Make each day count.
‘I don’t want your money.’
Rose’s love of impressionist painters who paint what they feel rather than exact depictions of their subject.
‘I remember how the sunlight felt – like I hadn’t felt sun in years.’
Rose says to Cal, ‘I’d rather be Jack’s whore than your wife.’
Rose finally has the freedom to tell her story to her granddaughter and the ship’s crew.

Rose ties her mother into a corset.
Cal puts his hand on Rose’s shoulder and tells her he will be her ‘first and forever’. Rose’s expression is bleak.
Cal beats Rose. She cannot fight back and the maid’s subservient position prevents her from intervening to rescue Rose.
Jack is handcuffed to the ship’s piping.
Rose smokes a cigarette and Cal stubs it out
1st class dogs are taken down to the 3rd class deck to piss and poop – a clear visual of the rigid class structure and people’s roles within the class structure.
People cannot move freely from one deck to another – they are held back behind metal doors.
1st class is exquisite, but there are rules to be followed.
Cal has a safe in his cabin.
Rose places Jack’s photo and the jewel in Cal’s safe and writes, Darling, now you can keep us both locked in your safe.

Rose: ‘It was the ship of dreams to everyone else. To me it was a slave ship, taking me back to America in chains.
Rose: ‘It was their whole world and I was trapped in it, like an insect in amber.
Everyone believed the ship was ‘unsinkable’ therefore Ismay, Smith and Andrews made fatal decisions. Had they not been ‘trapped’ in their thinking, the ship might have been saved.
Rose on the necklace Cal gave her – ‘After all these years I still feel it closing around my throat like a dog collar.’
Rose: ‘Why can’t I be like you, Jack. Just head out for the horizon when I feel like it.’
The sailors manning the lifeboats are so trapped in the British class system, that they allow themselves to be intimidated by the rich into lowering the lifeboats without filling them, even though there are not enough lifeboats for everyone aboard.

These are only a few examples, but hopefully it gives you an idea how using theme can help you brainstorm your own story.


When Words Collide – Theme Workshop

I’m really excited to be giving two workshops at this year’s When Words Collide Conference in Calgary, August 8-10th.

The first, on Friday morning, is part of a pre-festival workshop offered by The Alberta Romance Writers’ Association where I will be presenting along with fellow writers Jessica L. Jackson, Mahrie G. Reid and Sarah Kades.

The topic I’m discussing is Theme and its importance in your story. This is a subject I feel passionate about because theme is the heart of your story.

If you would like to check out my handout and read my thoughts on the importance of theme, please CLICK HERE for a link.

I will also be talking about The Heroine’s Journey on Sunday morning at 11am and will be posting a link to that handout on Sunday morning.

Happy Conference, everyone.

Theme – Les Miserables

I went to see Les Mis a few weeks ago.  It’s the fourth time I’ve seen it performed on stage, and, as always, I bawled at the end. For me it’s just the most perfect of shows.  It has everything; great characters, a great story and great music.

In my opinion, what pulls it all in so tightly is its theme.  (Yeah, I’m on that roll again!)

Okay, so what is ‘theme’?  According to wikipedia it’s ‘the central topic a text treats’.  The thematic concept is what the work is about. These are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

I believe the theme of Les Mis is simple and clear, but I decided to google Les Miserables + theme. Here are a ‘few’ of the ‘themes’ they suggested.

1) Importance of Love and Compassion.

2) Social Injustice in 19th Century France.

3) The long term effects of the French revolution of French Society.

4) Redemption and Social Justice.

5) Identity.

6) Education.

PUR-LEEESE. The list is endless.

Maybe I have a different take on ‘theme’ but I think Les Mis is about one thing only (and its opposite).  Enslavement and Freedom.

If you can put the theme of your story into one word, and then illustrate that word (or its opposite) in each scene you will create a tight, powerful story. Which is exactly what Les Mis does.

Here’s an excerpt from the first song in Les Mis.


Look down, look down,
You’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down,
You’re standing in your grave

Now bring me prisoner 24601
Your time is up
And your parole’s begun
You know what that means.

Yes, it means I’m free.

And here’s an excerpt from the last.  Do you see a common ‘theme’?


She was never mine to keep.
She is youthful, she is free.

So here’s a challenge for you. Check out this link to Les Mis lyrics.  Read through them and see just how many refer to the theme of enslavement of freedom.  Interesting, eh?  (Hey… I’ve lived in Canada for a long time!)


When I teach a writing workshop, I always begin with this disclaimer: There is only one ‘right’ way to write a story, and that’s the way that works for YOU. 

Over a long period of experimentation, I’ve discovered what works for me – at this particular time of my writing life.  As I continue to grow and develop, that approach and my insights might change.  So, have a read through this posting and if it strikes a chord with you, that’s great. If not, stay true to your own writing path.

Defining theme:

There are two ways of answering the question, What is your story ‘about’?

The first ‘about’ gives you the premise – in approximately 25 words or so.

The second ABOUT gives you the theme – in one word.

Premise: ROCKY is a story about a small time boxer who is offered the chance to fight the heavyweight champion of the world.  (This is the story, the plot.)

But what’s at the heart of this story? What is ‘Rocky’ ABOUT as opposed to ‘about’?  In one word, the theme is RESPECT. Watch any scene from that film and it’s about Rocky, Adrian, Paulie, Mickey and even Apollo Creed gaining or losing respect from others or themselves.

Bringing things more up to date, watch an episode of Mad Men.  I believe the overall theme for that show is the LIE.  As ad men, they are professional liars, but watch how often lies – and the opposite, truth – are depicted in every scene, both professional and personal.

What are some themes?  Respect.  Love.  Revenge.  Survival.  Trust.  Honour.  Winning. Resilience.  Truth.  Freedom.  Ambition.  To illustrate the theme, show the theme itself and its opposite.

What about a romance novel?  In that case, surely the theme must be ‘ Love’ or ‘Love conquers all’?   I would ask, ‘What is the ‘all’ that love will conquer by the end of your story?’  (Betrayal?  Trust?  Truth?  Respect?)  When you’ve worked that out, you’ll have found your theme.  Your premise is a story about two people falling in ‘love’.

What does theme have to do with character development/characterisation?  Everything.  Character behaviour reveals theme. For example, take the theme ‘Control’ (and its opposite – ‘Freedom’) and have two very different characters go shopping.  One, for whom control is an important part of her personality, won’t go anywhere near a shop without a detailed shopping list.  She’ll know the price of everything, including that week’s bargains, and will have the correct money ready for the checkout girl even before she rings in the first price. Another, for whom it’s all about freedom, will go in there, pick whatever takes her fancy off the shelves and then have to rummage in her purse for payment at the checkout.

Do you need to know your theme before you begin your first draft?  Of course you don’t. Personally I think it makes things easier because it allows me to keep my characters (primary and secondary) and plot tight and focused, which leads to a more focused and – hopefully – dynamic first draft. However, other writers need to write the story and discover their theme along the way in an organic way.    (Control and freedom, right?)

Remember, there is no single ‘right’ way to write.  Just write.