Crafting themes to inspire - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
June 12, 2024

On a recent edition of First Draft Friday, we had the chance to dive into the fascinating world of themes in fiction writing with Jessica Flory, a talented Young Adult Fantasy Romance author. By balancing relatable characters, engaging plots and meaningful themes, you can create stories that evoke a powerful emotional response without falling into the trap of preachiness.

Here are some key takeaways from my conversation with Jessica:

Unveiling themes

Jessica emphasizes the power of themes in storytelling, noting that her favorite books and movies all possess strong, emotionally resonant themes. She defines theme as the underlying meaning or lesson revealed by a story.

Choosing a theme

When asked about selecting a theme, Jessica explains that her process starts with character arcs. For her, themes emerge from what her characters need to learn and grow. An example from her debut novel, Oceans of Sand, illustrates the theme of forgiveness, where characters grapple with overcoming deep hurts.

Avoiding preachiness

Jessica shares insights on avoiding preachiness, suggesting writers focus on presenting an issue from multiple sides rather than trying to persuade readers to a specific viewpoint. By posing questions without necessarily answering them, authors can encourage readers to think and feel without feeling overtly influenced.

Developing themes

To effectively implement themes, Jessica recommends starting with the main character’s arc. This involves planning how the character grows and changes throughout the story. Additionally, exploring themes through side characters, their differing views and emotional experiences enriches the narrative.

Meaningful themes

Jessica encourages writers to draw from personal experiences and issues they are passionate about when selecting themes. Connecting with themes on a personal level enhances the authenticity of the narrative and resonates with readers.

Theme examples

Discussing examples like The Help and Dear Evan Hansen, Jessica highlights how these stories tackle powerful themes of racial prejudice and mental health/bullying, respectively. Despite the heavy subjects, the relatable characters and engaging plots prevent the themes from becoming overwhelming or preachy.

Themes in popular series

Analyzing series like Harry Potter, Jessica acknowledges that while some genres may rely less on explicit themes, underlying themes like good versus evil, self-discovery and friendship still play crucial roles. Romance genres, she notes, often prioritize tropes over explicit themes.

Awareness of competing themes

When dealing with multiple themes, Jessica advises writers to be aware of potential competition between them. Ensuring themes align with stellar characters and plots allows writers to navigate the complexities of multiple thematic elements.

It was a great discussion, one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute recording and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

More info:

Try out Marlowe, our A.I., for a critique of your novel:

Check out Jessica Flory’s books.

Enjoy the show? Check out our upcoming and past First Draft Friday episodes.


Alessandra: Hello everyone and welcome to First Draft Friday, number 62. My name is Alessandra Torre. I’m with Authors AI and I’m joined today by Jessica Flory, and we’re going to be talking about crafting themes to inspire. So we’re specifically talking about fiction writing – I’m assuming fiction writing. Actually, that’ll be a question I’ll ask Jessica, and how to find a theme for your book and implement it. So, this is a topic – I have written 30 books. I don’t know anything about themes, so I’m going to be very interested in this conversation. I won’t be adding much helpful information but I’m really excited to explore this. So to kick off, Jessica, do you just want to introduce yourself and tell the audience a little bit about you?

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. And thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be chatting with you today, Alessandra, and talking about theme. So I write Young Adult Fantasy Romance. My debut is coming out this coming Tuesday, it’s called Oceans of Sand. That’s June 20th. I’m so, so excited. It’s a dream come true to have a book published. But it’s actually the fourth book I’ve written, and I’ve learned a lot through the years, so very excited about that. I’m also a mom of four. I’ve got three little boys and a little girl. They are 3, 5, 7, and 9, so we’re very busy and I’m also a fitness instructor. So yeah, life is great and wonderful and so full.

Alessandra: And hectic, I’m sure. Yeah, it sounds like it.

Jessica: Very.

Alessandra: So how did you learn about theme and when did you start to implement it in your writing?

Jessica: That’s a good question. All of my favorite books and movies, and I didn’t realize this specifically, but the more I’ve learned about writing, the more I realized that all of my favorites are ones with very strong themes, right? Like a theme where it’s not hitting you in the face with preachiness, right? We don’t want that, but where you feel it. It’s emotionally powerful because of the theme underlying the characters and plot. A theme is never going to trump character and plot; that will always come first, but a great theme can come from and support great characters and plot. So when I had that epiphany, I dug into it more. I was like, how do I write books that evoke this powerful response and these emotions, and so I started learning more about theme and how to do that.

Alessandra: So is there a standard definition or can you explain what theme is?

Jessica: Generally, theme is the meaning or the lesson revealed by your story. and you can have more than one, but in my opinion, it is most powerful if you pick one and stick with it and try to explore that theme from different angles. You don’t have to pick, like, say your theme is going to be some kind of moral, like, kindness to others. You want that to be your theme. You don’t have to hammer people over the head with it and say, you have to be nice to people. That’s generally not what you want to do, but you can explore that from different angles. Maybe you have a character who is extremely kind to the point where it’s a fault. Maybe you have a character who is the opposite of that. Maybe the characters have conversations about kindness. One of the examples I use is The Christmas Carol, and we have Mr. Scrooge and he’s very grumpy and angry, never treats anybody nice. And that’s kind of his learning is how to be less selfish and how to think of others. And so that’s a very thematic novel. He goes through several experiences that help teach him to think of other people besides himself, so that can be very powerful.

Alessandra: So at what point do you think about theme when you’re sitting down and you’re like, OK, I’m going to write a new book? Where is theme coming into play in that process? At what point do I start to think about theme? Is it when I’m developing my plot? You talked about how it ties into plot and characters.

Jessica: Yeah. So this is going to be different for everybody and it kind of depends on you, especially if you are a plotter or a pantser. I’m a plotter. I have to have things plotted out in advance. So for me personally, when I start to think about theme is when I’m thinking about my character arc, because that is generally going to be a very powerful way to bring out your theme, is through what your character is learning. That’s how I choose my theme, actually. Generally, I have my plot, I know what I want to happen in the book, and then I think about my character. So, what character could I put in this situation who would have a really hard time with it, right? Like, that’s kind of what I think about because then your character’s going to have a lot of growing to do.

And so then I plan out my character arc, what my character’s going to learn over the course of the story. And generally, that’s how I think about my theme. I know what my character’s going to learn; that’s what I want my theme to be. So in Oceans of Sand, actually, the main theme is forgiveness and learning to forgive others who have hurt you deeply. And so, I put in a character who struggled with that and she needed to overcome that. And thinking about that, I added it to my side characters as well. Characters who had an easy time of it, characters who had a hard time with it and never forgave, held onto grudges. So I could explore this topic from different angles without seeming preachy about it. So, that’s kind of what I do when I look at my character arc.

Alessandra: It’s possible for a book, I guess, to not have a theme, right? If I wrote a bunch of books and I didn’t know anything about theme, which is exactly what happened, it’s possible that I did – I mean, could I have had a theme without even realizing it?

Jessica: Oh yeah. You could have, for sure. Especially if you do think about your characters growing and changing, you’re going to have a theme just by default, right? But that doesn’t mean we can just ignore theme, especially if it’s something you want to bring out in your books that is a powerful emotional response. Theme can be a great tool to get readers to really connect with your story.

Alessandra: This is so interesting. So if I’m sitting there, I’m starting to develop a plot, I’m creating my characters, I want to have an emotional response, I want to have a theme; is there like a place I can go and see all of the themes that exist so that I can pick them out? How do I learn about what themes are and how do I choose one?

Jessica: That’s a good question. As far as I know, there is not a place that lists all the book themes there ever will be. I’m sure there are. You could Google it to get them.

Alessandra: Is it hundreds or is it like there are 10 main themes?

Jessica: I would say there are probably hundreds, because you can get very broad with your theme, or you can get super, super specific, right? A broad theme would be good versus evil. That’s going to be, at least, if not a major theme in many, many fiction stories. And then a super, super specific theme would be like abortion. Like maybe you want to write a book.

Alessandra: So that could be a theme.

Jessica: Yeah, because that’s a major issue. That’s a hot topic. You know, maybe you want to write about that. That’s going to definitely evoke a powerful response, especially if you have characters who have different opinions about abortion or different experiences with it. That can be a way you can explore that theme from multiple angles.

Alessandra: So a theme is a consistent idea that is addressed and dealt with throughout the book?

Jessica: Absolutely. And you can have more than one theme. My advice is to pick one if you want it to be really powerful. If you don’t care too much about that, then you know, multiple themes are okay.

Alessandra: I want all my books to be as powerful as possible.

Jessica: Oh yeah. Well, in my characters – in Oceans of Sand, I have three main characters. They don’t all have the same character arc, they each learn different things. So aside from the main forgiveness theme, there are other minor themes going on, so that’s totally OK to have more than one theme.

Alessandra: Without spoilers. I mean, you could have forgiveness as a theme and have a character that doesn’t forgive at the end, right?

Jessica: Yeah. Absolutely.

Alessandra: OK.

Jessica: And that would be a great road to take.

Alessandra: A great what?

Jessica: A great road to take to explore that theme from different angles.

Alessandra: Yeah. And what happens when someone takes that path versus another?

Jessica: Just another way to have a powerful theme is to think about what’s meaningful to you. Like, what issues are you passionate about? What’s been important in your life? That’s going to come across on the page. If it’s important to you, your audience is going to feel that.

Alessandra: Yeah, that makes perfect sense. And also, I guess like you write young adult, so like what type of book you’re writing would also, I think, be influenced by that theme. I write a lot of psychological suspense and domestic suspense, so I’d have to think about my themes and how they apply to… but I say that, and you could have forgiveness in any type of book.

Jessica: Yeah. There are some themes that are going to work well across multiple genres, across multiple ages. And then there are other themes that are probably best for specific genres or specific age groups. Since I write Young Adult, I might try to think of what’s important to teens. Like coming of age, growing up, figuring out who you are; that’s going to be more important to teens than it is to adults. Not to say you can’t use those themes in adult literature, because that’s still very important, but it’s something to think about for sure. What’s important to you as well as what’s important to your audience?

Alessandra: So once I pick a theme, then how do I implement it in the story and in the characters?

Jessica: Yeah, good question. Like I said before, I generally start with my main character’s arc. That’s going to be a powerful way to implement your theme, how your character grows and changes, how they get from point A to point B, and the learning that occurs on the way. And if your character arc is solid, you’re already going to have a pretty good theme in place. If we are cheering for that character especially, and if we can relate to that character, which is a whole another topic, I realize, but then we’re going to feel that. We’re going to feel it. When they finally learn what they’re meant to learn and overcome that and able to bring about the resolution of the story because of what they learned, that’s powerful. That’s a great theme right there. But if you want to round it out; a great way to do that is through your side characters, and give them different views on this theme. Let them have conversations about this theme where there are differing opinions. Let other side characters be hurt because of this theme. Let them, you know, have joy because of this theme. Playing with different emotions around your theme, through your side characters, their interactions with your main character and the things that happen to them; that can be very powerful. I have also read that a great way to bring theme more into your novel is through symbols, like darkness, light, so that can come into play with your setting and invoking that specific feel that you want as well.

Alessandra: Yeah. And changing that setting, I guess as the story goes, like sometimes you’ll see like books start with a lot of dark settings, dark situations, and then almost without you noticing it, it moves into lighter.

Jessica: Absolutely.

Alessandra: Lighter areas.

Jessica: The way you describe things is going to help your reader kind of get that feeling. You can be describing a person and say, she has soft brown hair, and that’s going to evoke a certain feeling. Whereas if you say she has lanky, dirty hair. You’re still kind of describing the same person, the same hair, but they feel very different. So you can play around with the way you want your readers to feel going on with your theme.

Alessandra: And talking about like different viewpoints and different, and you had talked earlier about like, without being preachy, how do you know when you’re being preachy and how can you avoid that?

Jessica: That’s a great question. I really think it starts with your intent as a writer. Are you trying to persuade people to come around to your way of thinking? Or are you just trying to present the issue from multiple sides and evoke a powerful emotional response? Because when you have a theme, you can bring up a question without necessarily answering that question. Like if we go back to abortion, you can bring up the question of, is abortion right or wrong, and you don’t have to answer it. Just get your audience thinking. That can be a great tool. But generally, if you do do feel like…

Alessandra: Like forgiveness, are there only certain areas we have to worry about being preachy about like a hot topic or could we also fall into being preachy about forgiveness or about, you know, I don’t know.

Jessica: I would say there are topics where it’s easier to fall into being preachy, like if it’s a hot, controversial topic, it’s easier to sound preachy. You have to be more aware of that and take care of how you present this theme. Whereas others, it would be much more difficult to sound preachy about it and you generally don’t have to worry as much.

Alessandra: Yeah. I do know sometimes it feels like you’re hitting the reader over the head, if this is like the fourth conversation we’re having about forgiveness or something like that, you know?

Jessica: Generally, we as authors are bad judges of ourselves and our work, so this is where a writing group…

Alessandra: We know when it’s good and we don’t know when it’s bad.

Jessica: Absolutely. This is where a writing group or beta readers can really come in handy. You can say, “Hey, this is the theme I’m trying to explore. These are the emotions I want you to feel and come away with, can you help me realize, am I giving too much? Am I giving too little?” So your first draft isn’t going to come out perfect with a super strong, powerful theme generally; that’s going to come through revision and having other people kind of give you their feedback and implementing that. So yeah, definitely ask other people for help. You don’t have to do it by yourself.

Alessandra: I love that and I agree. I think getting the second feedback from both sides, like people who feel both sides, especially if it is like a hot issue, people who feel both sides of it. So, anything else you want to cover? I know we have some examples to talk about, but is there anything else that you wanted to cover on choosing a theme or implementing it in your writing before we move on to that?

Jessica: I don’t think so. If I think of any other tips or anything, I’ll be sure to mention it.

Alessandra: Yeah, no problem. For those of you watching live, if you have any questions or anything as we go, we’re just over the halfway point, so if you have any questions, pop them in the comments and and we’ll interact and answer as many of those as we can. So, do you have some examples you can share where we can understand how theme came into play with the story?

Jessica: Yeah, absolutely. I would love to talk about some examples. The first one that came to mind is actually the book, The Help, and it’s a movie as well. Have you read this book? It’s very popular.

Alessandra: I’ve listened to the audiobook. Great audiobook for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

Jessica: It’s amazing, right? It’s such a good book. And she picked a hot topic and a strong theme of racial prejudice.? And that’s like, it’s, I mean, it is, it’s there. It’s in your face. It’s, it’s right there. It’s a strong, powerful theme, but it doesn’t come off as annoying or preachy. Right? So how did she do that? She did it so well. and I mean, I haven’t spoken with her, so I don’t know all her techniques, but I can imagine that it’s really because of her characters and her plot. And it’s interesting because in The Help, her character, the arc actually is kind of the main character overcoming her fear of speaking out. She’s got this book she wants to publish. She’s interviewing these black maids to get more of a story, and she’s not sure if it’s good enough. She’s not sure if she should publish it. That’s kind of like her internal struggles. She, herself, the main character doesn’t struggle with racial prejudice, so she does play into the theme.

She doesn’t have those issues. She loves her maid, grew up, almost raised by her maid and doesn’t have like a negative view of that. But then there are characters who do have strong opinions that these black maids should be kind of put in their place and seen and not heard. And you can use, you know, this bathroom is for you, not this one. So it’s very powerful, very strong, a super, super thematic book without being overly heavy-handed with it. And it’s because there are other elements at play as well. There’s a strong character who we can cheer for and root for. There’s a great plot. We really want her to get these interviews done and to publish this book. And when she accomplishes it, we really cheer for her. That’s a very thematic book. And if you’re looking at developing themes about controversial issues, I would definitely recommend rereading The Help. It’s a great example.

Alessandra: So the technical theme, I mean, the main theme in the book is just, not just, but is racial equality, is that what you said? Or prejudice?

Jessica: Yeah, racial prejudice.

Alessandra: Yeah. OK.

Jessica: So that’s a great one. This one is maybe another example that follows similar lines where the theme is very heavy, but it doesn’t come across as overly preachy or annoying, is the play, Dear Evan Hansen. Have you seen this play?

Alessandra: No. I think it was book.

Jessica: Oh, was it a book at first? I’m not sure.

Alessandra: No. The book came after the Broadway show.

Jessica: This is a fantastic story. I just love it so much. It’s my favorite play. Dear Evan Hansen, I won’t spoil too much since you haven’t seen it or watched it, but yeah, it’s a movie too, so go watch it. And the songs are just great. But yeah, so the theme that we’re talking about there is kind of mental health and bullying, right? And it’s very strong throughout the whole play. Like this kind of mental health feeling, feeling alone, feeling different, being bullied because of it. And there’s also some suicide coming into play there. So strong themes, very heavy, but we really care about the character and cheer for him as he goes through the story, so that’s super important. Without that, it would just be the writers trying to get you to come to their way of thinking, right? Which isn’t bad necessarily, but when you read a book, that’s not really what you want, right?

Alessandra: But I’m curious, because I mean, I would think everyone thinks bullying is wrong, right? It sounds like it would be, like you said you loved that book. Like what is it that you loved that play? What is it that you loved about it and how did they keep that – that’s a dark topic, you know, how did they keep that dark topic from not just drowning the story? Is it because it does have a happy ending at the end that he’s able to stand up for himself? Forgive me because I don’t know the plot line. How do they successfully pull off that and are you always trying to teach something with theme or is it just these are like, this is the world or the setting or the main issue that is going to be dealt with in this book?

Jessica: Yeah, yeah. I would say usually you’re not trying to teach something with theme, because if you are, then it’s easy for it to come across as you’re preaching at people rather than telling a good story, right? Like, our goal primarily is to tell a good story. Theme is just a tool to do that. It’s just a tool to make people feel something when they read your book, watch your movie, whatever it is. That’s what we really want. So these powerful themes, they are powerful because they’re relatable, right? Like, especially in Dear Evan Hansen, I think that growing up most of us don’t feel like we’re the popular kids. Most of us at some point in our lives…

Alessandra: At some point we’re bullied or picked on for something.

Jessica: If not to an enormous extent, like it is in the play, we can relate to that, and that’s powerful. That’s what makes it such a great theme is that it resonates, right? We’ve experienced that. We know what that feels like.

Alessandra: That makes perfect sense. And another comment from Facebook. Someone said, I would say though, if the theme is justice, the audience does get invested in whether justice is served.

Jessica: Yeah, that’s absolutely true. And you can go either way with that. It depends on how you want your audience to feel. At the end of your novel, do you want them to feel outraged because justice wasn’t served? Or do you want them to feel satisfied because whoever needed this justice got what was coming to them, you know? So, it depends on how you want your readers to feel at the end of your story.

Alessandra: And that makes me feel maybe like Mississippi Burning, I believe I’m thinking of the right movie, but it would have had two themes, right? Like racial strife and justice. Would that be accurate?

Jessica: Probably. I’ve never seen this movie.

Alessandra: You’ve never seen the movie, then it’s not a good example. But it does make me wonder if sometimes themes are competing with each other, and if you have to, like if you do have multiple themes, if you have to be aware of that, or does everything kind of fall into place naturally when you’re focusing on the plot.

Jessica: I would say it’s a good thing to be aware of if you do have – especially if you have two big themes, like justice and racial prejudice, right? Those can go hand in hand really well, or they can compete with each other. So, it’s important to be aware of that and how you’re treating those themes. But I will say that if your character and plot are stellar, you can get away with a lot in themes.

Alessandra: Themes just make you get away with a lot of things. With a good enough plot of characters, you can do just about anything. What about, and not to put you on the spot, but like a book like Harry Potter, and I know there’s like, I mean, it’s a big long series, but I’m trying to think of like what a theme would be for a book like that or a book like Twilight. Are you able to identify a theme that would be in a story like that?

Jessica: Yeah, great question. So Harry Potter, I would say is a series that relies slightly less on theme than other books do, but themes are there, right? Good versus evil. That’s a huge one. That is clearly there, you know, that’s a great one. We definitely cheer for Harry, not Voldemort. We want Harry to win. But it’s got some minor themes as well. Kind of discovering who you are, you know, there’s that journey. Harry’s finding out who he is over the course of all these books. Friendship is definitely there. Friendship is very valuable to Harry and his characters. And on the other side, we see how Malfoy treats his friends, right? Not very well, but for some reason they stick with him anyway. Like it’s not a super thematic book, but the themes are there.

Alessandra: That makes sense.

Jessica: It’s been a while since I’ve read Twilight.

Alessandra: I think it’s been 12 years since I read Twilight, whatever it came out.

Jessica: Yeah. I remember devouring those books, but that was a while ago. My opinion is that in the romance genre, just generally, you see theme a little bit less. And that’s because romance, it’s more about the falling in love, right?

Alessandra: And it’s probably replaced more by trope, you know, so best friend’s brother or, you know what I mean? I mean, there are so many tropes that are kind of the focus – secret baby or enemies to lovers or something like that.

Jessica: Those are very important in the romance genre much more so than having a strong underlying theme, right? So I’d have to do that again to figure out if there were more themes going on there.

Alessandra: I was saying, but I think the books that really do emotionally resonate and you hear readers just gush over, I think it is probably due to having a strong theme, and that’s what really makes that connection. We are already out of time, so I’m so sorry. Normally, I do a last call for questions, but I just looked at the clock and we’re already out and I would like to just apologize to our audience. We normally have an email that goes out two hours prior and there was a glitch and it just went out. It looks like a couple of minutes into the broadcast. So I apologize to those of you who are just now joining us or if you’re catching the replay that you didn’t get that reminder in advance. But thank you to everyone who joined. And Jessica, tell us about your debut novel. It comes out on Tuesday. So if they’re interested in following your journey or finding out about this book or your future books, where can they find out more about you?

Jessica: Yeah Yep, right there is a great place to connect with me. I’ll always post announcements about my books and giveaways and sneak peeks and things on there. And you can also connect with me. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok with the handle Jessicafloryauthor. I’d love to hear from you.

Alessandra: And thank you all. We’ll be back in another two weeks with another First Draft Friday. Thank you, Jessica, so much for joining us.

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