We all know the adage “write what you know.” It’s good advice. It’s a solid approach to relatable characters and descriptions that feel real.

But when it comes to themes, this is not good advice. When it comes to themes, write what you don’t know. In fact, it’s one of the best paths to a key element of great fiction: complexity.

Choosing Themes: Write What You Don't Know

Photo by Ethan Lofton

But how do you identify what you don’t know? Here’s three questions to help identify powerful themes:

What bothers you?

Joss Whedon cites his dissatisfaction with how women were portrayed in the media as the inspiration for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  He was unhappy with women’s victimization, and their portrayal as weak, emotionally and physically.

We all have things like this that we see in our everyday lives that just get under our skin. What triggers this in you? What gets you ranting?

Got it? Good. Now… go ahead and rant. What story could you tell that would show others what you see?

What ethical dilemmas do you struggle with?

Some things in life are simple black and white. Others are caught deep in the grays.

For example, what should be done about a man who steals a loaf of bread to keep his family from starving? What about a woman who becomes a prostitute to keep her daughter safe? I think Victor Hugo would agree, there’s no end to the potential commentary on these moral dilemmas.

So what ethical issues do your wrestle with? Consider the different sides and get writing.

What scares you?

And I don’t mean just heights (then again—Vertigo). What really gets under your skin about our world? What keeps you awake at night and makes you fear for the next generation?

Perhaps, for example, Edward Snowden scandal triggered something in you. The fear of government monitoring is a classic, just ask Big Brother.

Whether it’s government security or something entirely different, once you identify it, ask yourself—Why does this thing scare you? What’s the worst that could happen? Let your imagination run wild and watch the consequences unfold. That’s the beginnings of a story right there.

The best literary works prompt questions and discussions rather than give the answer. When you start with a question instead of a thesis, you’re off to a strong start.

So now you’ve identified your thematic hot spots, so let your imagination run wild as you examine it from every angle you can think of. Feed it on “what ifs,” and turn back to your core questions when you get stuck.

Don’t, however, let it constrict your story—who knows where you might end up.  But with a solid thematic foundation, it’s sure to bloom into rich complexity.

How do you get started to identify themes for your writing?

PRACTICE

Choose one of the three questions above and answer it. For fifteen minutes, explore your answer and write about how you could turn it into a story. Then, share it in the comments!