Writing Craft Hack: Improve Any Story with Theme Work


Remember high school English class when teachers went on and on about symbolism and imagery and themes? This annoyed me to no end. I was certain all those authors of Very Important Literature simply wrote what they wrote without any thought to deeper meaning. That's just how their stories came out.


Almost as cute as my Aqua-Net abused hair and my frosty blue eye-shadow.

The truth is, writing is a craft that can be practiced, and while themes may come more easily to some, any piece of writing can be improved with a little intentional theme building. If you like the Layer Cake Edit, you can add Theme as one of your layers.

Find what's already there and make it bigger

Stephen King tells a story in On Writing about how after finishing the manuscript for Carrie, his wife pointed out the theme of blood. So much blood. He hadn't noticed it as he'd written, but once this theme was pointed out to him, King was able build upon it and make blood--and all it stands for--more important, and more impactful, in the story.

We can't all be married to Stephen King's wife.

But we can all strengthen our work by paying attention to themes.

I have developed a 4-Step process for infusing my work with more meaning. Here's to hoping this can work for you too!

Step 1: 

Read over your piece and identify five or so abstract or concrete themes or ideas. These can be anything: freedom, khakis, sparkle, fear, lists, fashion--whatever! Are these actual themes that might be found in Very Important Literature? Don't know, don't care. These are your themes are they are good enough for you and everybody else.

Step 2:   

Spend five minutes (you want to be quick with this part) coming up with five concrete IMAGES or SCENES (expressed in a sentence or less) that represent each theme. Set that timer and bust out some details. For example, if your theme is khakis, your list might include: a Gap catalog, a Best Buy associate, school uniforms, and that time we all giggled in the cubes of the big consulting firm after our HR rep sent out a 20-page memo detailing a khaki rotation scheme to ensure our high dollar analysts hit the right tone of 1990s business casual.

At the end of this step you'll have 25 IMAGES and/or SCENES that bring your themes to life in a concrete way. Twenty-five images and/or scenes that probably wouldn't have just organically emerged in your first (or second or twenty-second) draft. No matter what my wise 17-year-old self would have you believe. In barely any time at all.

Step 3: 

Pick and choose and use: Work what you like into your piece. Your concrete theme strengtheners can show up in scenery, in memories, in internal reactions, dialogue--again, any way you want!

My khaki example may be ridiculous, but trust me when I tell you if khakis are showing up in your writing, they mean something to you. If they mean something to you, they mean something to other people too. So own it!

Lean into your themes and make them shine.