The more I read and write, the more I find myself fascinated with themes. Not the “moral of the story”, but what exactly is it I’m trying to say about the world through my medium – the story. Exploring powerful themes like love, war, slavery, kindness, religion – themes we all have some connection to in our own lives – have brought me all my best stories. Let me give you some examples of what I'm talking about.
So now that you know what I mean by theme and why I think it makes a story richer, how do you get it? It's very easy for a beginning writer to be too heavy handed with their themes. Many writers for children start off wanting to "teach a lesson" with their story and the result is often a preachy mess nobody enjoys. Nobody enjoys a lecture, and I mean nobody. So Step One is to get off your high horse and get past the "teach a lesson" stage. If you start with the lesson and give no thought to the characters and the plot, except to illustrate your lesson, readers will sense it. They'll know the story lacks any depth beyond the lesson. Kids can smell a rat and you won't be fooling them into "learning something" if that's what you think, so give that up right now.
Step Two is get back to basics. Ask yourself three things: Who is my character? What do they want? What's standing in their way?
If you craft a compelling character with a compelling problem, BOOM, you just got a theme! Easy peasy! Let me illustrate with my book Hush Puppy. The main character is Corrine, a poor black girl with a fierce determination to get out of her backwater town, go to college, and see the world. What's standing in her way? Lack of money and lack of support. See the theme and the conflict? Where you come from and your economic background have a huge effect on the educational opportunities available to you. The character becomes a real person dealing with a real problem and it's something most anyone can relate to. It's Corrine's choices that illustrate how she deals with her own set of problems. As an author, I'm not trying to lecture anyone on poverty. I'm illuminating it. I'm showing it, not telling it. See the difference?
Give it a try. Make a character, give them a goal and then make a really big obstacle to overcome. Then come back and let me know what your theme is! Happy writing~