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Universal themes: the secret to writing a story readers will love

universal themes
Home » Craft » Universal themes: the secret to writing a story readers will love

Theme is an important element of any story, yet strangely it’s one many writers overlook. Perhaps those writers consider theme to be an unimportant story element, or maybe they believe it’s one that will evolve naturally as they write (which may well be what eventuates). Whatever a writer’s reason, failing to explore their story’s universal themes is to its detriment. A story with vague themes, or themes that haven’t been fully developed with intention, is one that fails to engage and compel readers. 

What is “theme”?

Theme is often defined in different ways. While some writers consider a story’s themes to be the universal themes or central topics explored throughout the story, others consider it to be the thematic statement or message — the opinion, moral or question the writer conveys (which I’ll cover in a future post). Some may get completely confused and consider the trope to be the story’s theme. But while the trope may hook the reader, it’s the theme that speaks to them.

For our purposes, we will consider the theme of a story to be those universal themes or central topics to which all human beings can relate. Usually, themes can be defined in one word; for example, romance stories explore the themes of Love and Intimacy. Action stories might explore themes of Courage and Survival, while mysteries might explore Justice and Safety. Sometimes themes can be more specific, such as Good vs Evil, or Love Conquers All. Other themes common in the romance genre are Friendship, Connection, Belonging, Family, Identity, Fate, Trust, Passion, etc.

universal themes

Why do I need to know my story’s universal themes?

Knowing your story’s themes, even early on in the story-writing process, can help you to:

  • determine what your protagonist will be working towards;
  • see the shape of your story, otherwise known as its narrative arc;
  • construct meaningful conflict to challenge your protagonist;
  • figure out the lesson your protagonist needs to learn in order to achieve their goal;
  • find the heart of the story — the message you want to share with the world.

Given all these benefits, it makes sense to explore your story’s theme before you start writing. However, if you haven’t and you already have a first draft, it’s not too late to identify your story’s themes and revise with them in mind.

Interestingly, writers often end up exploring the same few themes in the stories they write, so focusing on this element of your stories can help you learn about who you are as a writer. And having a sound understanding of your writer’s identity can help you market yourself to publishers and readers: “I’m an author who writes about [insert themes here].” In a similar way, publishers promote titles to booksellers by communicating their themes, and similarly, booksellers hand sell books to customers based on the same.

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You deserve to write a story you can be proud of.

Your characters deserve the most epic and transformational journey you can give them.

Your reader deserves the most compelling and life-changing love story you’re capable of writing.

Visit the RTP Academy today and learn to romance the page with romance book coach, Libby M Iriks.

How do I identify my story’s universal themes?

If you don’t know what kind of story you what to write, try the following:

Pull a few of your favourite romance novels off the bookshelf. Consider each one and jot down its themes. Do you notice any common themes between the titles? If you enjoy reading stories with these themes, perhaps they’re themes you’re passionate about. Consider whether you’d like to explore them in your writing.

If you have a story idea in mind and are still in the planning stages, try the following:

Identify two to four themes you think will become evident as your story evolves based on what you know of it so far. Journal about why these themes are important to you. Don’t just touch the surface of the matter — go deep to uncover the personal, intimate reasons you want to explore these themes.

If you have a finished draft, try the following:

Try to identify the themes in your manuscript, or ask beta readers for their thoughts. Jot down any themes you think are relevant. If none come to mind immediately, or you aren’t satisfied with your story’s current themes, focus on those themes you want your story to cover (perhaps by attempting the first suggestion above). Remember, it’s important to be passionate about what you’re writing, so if your manuscript’s themes aren’t very obvious, there’s a good chance you’ll have a fair bit of rewriting to do during revisions.

Ready to take your story to the next level? Use its universal themes to develop a thematic statement and find the heart of your story.

Need help identifying your story’s themes? Consider taking my course: Story Fundamentals #1: The Basics, a self-paced course that will give you clarity and provide guidance in how to develop and strengthen a story concept, whether you already have one to work with or you want to build one from scratch.

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