The Scary Truth About Writing Strong Themes

Themes are often the hardest part of a story to come up with. They’re hard because they matter. A story is never complete without meaning lying under the surface. Good messages are vital if you want your story to not only entertain, but impact your readers.

Strong Themes

The problem is that stories aren’t for preaching. They aren’t meant to be sermons. In fact, the beauty of a truly good story is that the message is cloaked; meant to be unearthed by the reader. Why then, do so many stories—especially by Christian authors—fall into the trap of becoming a glorified sermon?

What Makes a “Good Theme”?

Most of us have an idea of what makes a “good theme”. Forgiveness, perhaps. Or maybe redemption. For a lot of Christians, a “good theme” largely resembles what you’d hear the pastor talk about in church.

There’s nothing wrong with these things. Forgiveness and redemption are great. But what truly makes a great theme in a story is the ability to resonate. And what will resonate best is not always the cliché “good themes”. It’s not always so broad or quaint and ideal.

What will resonate with your readers is what resonates with you.

The Scary Truth

This is the part that authors usually cringe at. But it’s the truth. The most powerful themes aren’t the perfect sermons you’ve heard, or some general concept that will be easy to write about. The most powerful themes are the ones born out of struggle. Your struggle.

It’s easy to write a sermon, because it’s easy to make yourself believe that you’re writing about somebody else. Pffft—this isn’t your story! What are you talking about? It’s easy to generalize. Easy to justify. It’s easy just to preach, because it isn’t personal.

But stories—at least powerful ones—are personal. They’re raw. Real. True. When you sniff the pages, you can smell the authenticity. The struggle is real.

Write What You Know

Writers throw this phrase around all the time, but it is never better advice than with themes. And yet somehow, there’s never an area where writers more justify throwing it away.

We’re afraid to get close. We’re afraid to be vulnerable. We’re afraid to let the mask slip off and show where our scars are. We’re afraid of somebody asking the question, “Is that you?” because we know what the answer will be. And the answer is sometimes the most terrifying thing of all.

But when you write about something you not only understand, but identify with, it infuses power into your story like nothing else. Simply because it is true. And people can always tell, deep down, when something is true. Because it resonates. In it, they see themselves.

The Power in Theme

It’s easy to hide behind the mask, preaching “good themes” with “good characters”, but the truth is that those kinds of stories are sterile.

If you want to write a story that packs real power, you have to be brave. Instead of picking a theme out of a nice, gold-plated box, pick one out of your soul. Maybe it’s not quaint. Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe it’s a little bit messy. But what does that matter if it’s true?

True things have a way of changing people’s lives. Who knows? Maybe that person will even be you.

What kinds of struggles have you experienced? How could they be made into themes? What’s holding you back from writing that story?

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18 thoughts on “The Scary Truth About Writing Strong Themes

  1. Very true. It took me quite a few failed stories to realize what a good theme is – and that I had to truly believe in that theme for it to really WORK.

    And this is one of the reasons why it’s so important to have lots and lots of experiences in life as a writer, so that later you can draw from a well of truth and knowledge. 😉

    • I agree. That’s one reason it’s important for writers to get out and about instead of turning into reclusive hermits. When you get out and about more, you have a much wider pool of experience to draw from.

  2. So true, I so often get tired of the same old messages over and over again, I find that very few books I read actually have the Christian message in such a way that feels approachable-even to me a devoted Christian. But the books that cause me to think about them for a long time-the books that I have to muse on to find all the hidden meanings, those are the books that stay with me. Great post!

  3. This is so accurate! I’ve read far too many books by Christian authors that are really just so preachy that it’s frustrating. Finding the balance between meaningless writing and writing un-preachily is hard, but I like your tip about writing from personal experience.

    • It’s true, it can be very therapeutic to write. Honestly, I believe that art is one of the greatest therapies in the world.

    • Thank you, Joshua! I’m so glad you enjoy my blog. (: That is encouraging and means more to me than you know. Thanks for commenting!

  4. What a great article. It reminded me of another tenet of good writing: be brave. Unless you write with utter honesty, the story is missing the best part of you. I had to completely overhaul one of my most beloved characters recently because of this. She was too good. She needed more than just the normal, endearing qualities of the strong girl archetype. Tragedy in her life wasn’t enough. Now that she’s got qualities that are positively cringe-worthy, it’s more of a challenge to make her likable and the writing process is much more rewarding. Thanks for the article!

    • Thanks for sharing! I’m glad this article was helpful. (: And I agree, honesty definitely requires that authors be brave. Your character sounds fascinating, and I wish you luck with your story! (:

  5. I know this is late, but from a preacher’s point of view: Sermons about and for someone else are always the worst sermons, too. If the first person you are preaching to and at, isn’t the person in the mirror, then your sermon will fail as miserably as a “preachy’ book.